Lovecraft County has a problem with dark-skinned people. And queer people. And trans people.
Content warning: In addition to spoilers for Lovecraft Country, this post contains discussions of transphobia, sexual assault, physical assault, child abuse and murder.
Lovecraft Country is HBO’s latest hit.
The sci-fi/horror show — helmed by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams — dominated Sunday nights on Twitter for weeks. You can’t escape tweets about the show: not even the mute function will prevent you from seeing something about the show. The show premiered to an abundance of praise, both from critics and regular viewers.
Many people view the show as an important landmark for Black entertainment: a high-budget sci-fi/horror show that centers Black people, with Black writers, directors and producers behind the scenes. Lovecraft Country purportedly puts blackness and Black people into genres we have historically been excluded from. The last few years have seen an effort to make horror more inclusive of Black people, particularly with movies like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, as well as the recently-released Antebellum. Many position Lovecraft Country as the latest edition of a Black horror Renaissance and as a refreshing spin on the genre.
The show really works for a lot of people. I, unfortunately, am not one of them.
I’m glad so many people were able to watch Lovecraft Country and feel represented, but, for me, the show felt like more of the same harmful rhetoric the entertainment industry has always utilized. To put it plainly, Lovecraft Country had issues with colorist, queerphobic and transphobic writing that greatly diminished my enjoyment of the show. Dark-skinned, queer and trans or gender non-conforming characters were often villified and became the target for the most violence and brutality.
When Lovecraft Country premiered, there were two characters who immediately caught my attention. There was Montrose Freeman, played by Michael K. Williams, one of my favorite actors. And there was Ruby Baptiste, played by Wunmi Mosaku, a tall, curvy, drop-dead gorgeous dark-skinned actress. Montrose is the father of the show’s male protagonist Atticus (Tic), while Ruby is the sister of female protagonist Leti. Both characters initially appear to be complex characters who are entangled with the protagonists’ misadventures.
Montrose, who we later learn is a closeted queer man, has an estranged relationship with Tic because he physically abused Tic as a child. Ruby and Leti’s relationship is strained because of unspecified mistreatment from their mother, and because Leti only seems to call on Ruby when she needs something.
I was interested in seeing how Montrose and Ruby would become entrenched in the magic-fueled spookiness of the show. But as the show went on, it became apparent that the creators were relying on negative stereotypes surrounding dark-skinned people and queer people to write Montrose and Ruby. Montrose is presented as excessively violent and self-loathing while Ruby is reduced to being obsessed with whiteness and the illusion of “freedom” associated with it.
Violence is a staple of Montrose Freeman’s characterization. Michael K. Williams seems to have been directed to either shout the majority of his lines or say them in a very aggressive tone, regardless of the context of the scene. Montrose is violent towards Tic at the start of the show, often shouting at him, arguing with him and slamming his fist on a table. Montrose is rude to his lover Sammy, harshly rebuffing him whenever he feels they are becoming too intimate, only to pitifully run back to him. Montrose even has violent sex with Sammy, holding him tightly and brutally slamming into him during a heavy-handed scene that features Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion.”
Montrose’s violence hits a peak in episode 4. In a moment that doubles as a stunning example of transphobic writing, Montrose murders a Two-Spirit character named Yahima (who the show uses she/her pronouns for) less than 10 minutes after she is introduced. The murder is given a flimsy excuse: it was Montrose’s attempt to “protect” Tic from the magic he’s actively pursuing. There’s nothing that could justify Montrose slitting Yahima’s throat open. It’s a cruel imitation of the way trans and intersex people are mistreated and murdered in real life. The only intersex character in the show becomes a plot device to be disposed of, while the show continues to paint Montrose as a deeply troubled, violent man.
The show wants us to believe that Montrose is violent because he’s a victim of violence: it’s mentioned several times that Montrose’s father beat him as a child. In the series premiere, Montrose’s brother and Tic’s uncle George admits he feels guilty for not protecting Montrose from their father’s abuse. The writers were clearly aiming to open a discussion about generational trauma, but no one seemed to realize that making the dark-skinned Black male character super violent is incredibly problematic.
Thanks to societal ills such as anti-Blackness and colorism, people tend to associate dark-skinned people with violence. Dark-skinned people are often viewed and depicted as more threatening and dangerous than lighter-skinned people. There have been many studies that explore this stereotype and the way it affects dark-skinned Black people. The association with violence often leads to problems such as higher incarceration rates among dark-skinned Black people. Making violence such a large part of Montrose’s personality plays right into negative stereotypes about Black men who look like him.
His violence wouldn’t have been such an issue had he been developed beyond it. But Montrose’s character development feels very stunted; his arc feels like an afterthought. The way his sexuality is treated is a clear example of his incomplete arc.
The first half of the show drops very obvious hints about Montrose being queer, but it’s not until episode 5 that we get confirmation. At the end of that appalling sex scene in episode 5, Montrose refuses to kiss Sammy, turning his head as Sammy leans in. This action is supposed to indicate that Montrose is not fully accepting of his own sexuality; he has internalized homophobia. That would be a realistic and interesting aspect of Montrose’s personality to explore, but the show doesn’t do very much with it. The next time we see Montrose and Sammy, Montrose is backstage with Sammy as Sammy and other drag queens get dressed. Later, Montrose has a dramatic scene on the dance floor with other queer and trans people, and he passionately kisses Sammy on the lips.
The kiss between Montrose and Sammy would’ve been a nice moment if it had felt earned in any way. But it felt haphazard; there was nothing to bridge the two extremes of Montrose not accepting his own sexuality and Montrose fully embracing his lover in a public place. If there’d been just a couple of more scenes between Montrose and Sammy — where they could’ve talked or argued or something — Montrose’s journey would’ve felt more fleshed out. Instead, it feels like his queerness was just thrown in to achieve some representation benchmark. It also feels like a very reductive view of queerness, as if the writers see it as little more than self-hatred and bad sex.
While the writing for Montrose’s character falls victim to anti-Black stereotypes about dark-skinned people and violence, the writing for Ruby’s character falls victim to the notion that Black people want to be white. Because, that’s what the writers seemed to want to achieve with Ruby: a cautionary tale on the pursuit of and obsession with whiteness. But sacrificing the only dark-skinned Black woman — after putting her through sexual abuse and jarringly inconsistent characterization — was a terrible way to convey that message.
When we first meet Ruby Baptiste, she’s standing tall and proud in a gorgeous blue sequined-dress, playing guitar and singing a blues song. She’s fiery and lively as she quips about not wanting to sing “lily white” music. Ruby’s character immediately shows a lot of promise. Here’s a dark-skinned, fat character who is shown to be sexy, intriguing and dynamic. Unfortunately, Ruby’s character doesn’t live up to this introduction; she’s deconstructed and ultimately destroyed.
In episode 4, Ruby falls into bed with William, a white man who seems to be the boyfriend of the show’s antagonist Christina, the white witch who basically wants to use magic to achieve immortality. In the next episode, William gives Ruby a potion that allows her to turn into a white woman.
The introduction of this potion marks the beginning of the deterioration of Ruby’s character. Ruby, who had previously been shown to be proud of her blackness and even calling out Leti for hypocrisy in her activism in episode 3, gladly takes the potion, gleefully reveling in the “freedom” being white affords her.
Ruby uses her newfound whiteness to get the job she’s always wanted at a department store and promptly be rude towards the only Black woman working there. She also spends a significant amount of time making friends with her new white women coworkers and cozying it up to William. At one point, the show plays a montage of Ruby’s adventures as a white woman while a monologue from Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” plays in the background, and it feels maddeningly disrespectful to pair an iconic and influential work that centers Black women with a scene of a Black woman gallivanting around in a white woman’s skin.
Apparently, whiteness is the ultimate goal for someone like Ruby: her blackness is a hindrance. A dark-skinned Black woman isn’t allowed to be happy with her blackness and furious with white supremacy. She must be so infatuated with whiteness that she’s willing to shed her blackness.
Later in episode 5, we learn that “William” is actually Christina using the same type of potion she gave Ruby to disguise herself as a former lover of hers. By this point, Christina has tricked Ruby into having sex with her several times. This is sexual assault; manipulating or tricking someone into having sex with you is sexual assault. But the show never cares to name what’s happened to Ruby. The show doesn’t even seem to consider Ruby as a victim of sexual assault.
The show makes time to turn Ruby into a sexual assailant, though. At the end of episode 5, Ruby brutally sexually assaults her white male supervisor after witnessing his attempt to sexually assault the Black woman Ruby had been rude to for almost the entire episode. It’s meant to be a moment of revenge and victory for Black women who have been harmed at the hands of whiteness: that intent is evident in the way Ruby growls that she wanted him to know that a Black woman did this to him. But it honestly just feels like another slight against Ruby’s character. No one seems to think of her as a victim, but they have no problem imagining her as an aggressor. It reminds me of the way the show went out of the way to paint Montrose as excessively violent. Dark-skinned people and violence apparently go hand-in-hand in Lovecraft Country.
Ruby continues having a relationship with Christina/William. Ruby’s sexuality is never addressed. She’s never given a moment to interrogate herself on what this relationship really means for her. Episode 8 features a particularly cringe-worthy moment of Ruby pleading with Christina to understand the pain and terror the Black community feels in the wake of Emmett Till’s murder, as well as the guilt Ruby feels for being a “Black woman fucking a white man.” That moment ends with Christina suggesting that Ruby doesn’t actually care about Emmett’s murder and just wants to be able to choose herself without guilt. It’s suggested a few times that Ruby’s relationship with Christina is Ruby choosing her own happiness or putting herself first, but to make that suggestion about Ruby being in a relationship with the woman who sexually assaulted her is disturbing to say the least.
The way the show frames Ruby’s relationship with Christina is very reminiscent of the way Black women and girls — especially fat, dark-skinned Black women and girls — are denied victimhood; we’re simply too “strong” to be assaulted or abused. Our pain often goes ignored and unnamed, and those who harm us often do so with impunity. If our pain is acknowledged, it’s seen as a joke or form of entertainment. We saw this happen immediately after Tory Lanez shot Megan thee Stallion, and people jumped to make jokes and memes mere hours after Megan stated she’d been shot.
Ruby’s harm is treated similarly: the official Twitter account for Lovecraft Country and at least one of the show’s writers have tweeted jokes about Ruby and Christina.
The Christina/William device is also an example of transphobic writing on the show, as it plays into stereotypes of trans and gender non-conforming people being deceptive or devious, and that their gender expression is little more than a disguise. Gender-fluidity is villainized here: there’s no way an evil witch disguising herself as a man to manipulate and take sexual advantage of a woman is good representation for trans or gender-nonconforming people. The Ruby/Christina pairing ends up being insulting and harmful on several different fronts at once.
The final insult to Ruby comes in the season finale, when Christina kills her for trying to sneakily help Leti and Tic defeat her. Ruby is killed off-screen, and there isn’t any time for Leti to even react to her sister’s death: the plot pushes past Ruby’s demise. After all the ways it disrespected her character, the show doesn’t even give Ruby a real send-off. She’s simply killed, and her sexual assailant uses her body to attack Leti. No care was given to Ruby life, and no care was given to her in death.
There are aspects of Lovecraft Country I appreciated, such as the acting and costuming. And I did enjoy seeing beautiful Black people on my screen on a weekly basis. But in my view, Lovecraft Country ended up doing more harm than good. The show could’ve never been the revolutionary take on sci-fi/horror many touted it to be as long as it used dangerous rhetoric to craft marginalized characters.
There’s no magic to be found in Lovecraft Country at the end of the day. It’s just more of the same old mess.