Lovecraft Country Lets Violence Be Righteous for Black Characters

Sometimes the camera should revel, not wince.

Lovecraft Country is a show full of violence. The vast majority of this schlocky gore is directed against the series’ deliberately cartoonish racists. A shoggoth bites off one’s arm, while a haunted elevator decapitates another. It’s a fantastical, deserved type of violence you can pretty easily root for. However anti-racist violence isn’t just left in the hands of detached cosmic forces. It’s also put in the hands of the Black protagonists as they fight back against their assailants. In a time full of handwringing over the ethics of property damage caused by Black people protesting for the right not to be killed in the streets, this free approach of this show is cathartic.

One of the most significant displays of violence in this show comes in “Holy Ghost.” Leti (Jurnee Smollett) has bought an old (and haunted) house in an all-white area. This purchase attracts the attention of her racist neighbors. Some of whom decide to park their cars outside the house with bricks tied to the horns, as well as set up a burning cross on the lawn. She responds by taking a baseball bat and smashing the cars — all in slow motion to swelling gospel music. The camera luxuriates in the moment of destruction. It feels glorious and even heroic. Even though Leti faces consequences for this anti-racist action (arrested and spending the night in jail), the framing within the show affirms that she was righteous. This is a cool moment. Smollett with a baseball bat is truly an iconic image all on its own. When placed in a political context, it becomes a powerful statement.

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Black people have always been held to a higher standard in terms of violence. Every action — when there’s an inciting action at all — comes under a microscope. This issue is even worse when it comes to actions in response to racism. We see it now in the media response to the persistent Black Lives Matter protests, where property damage is wildly blown out of proportion and used as an excuse to divest from caring about Black people demanding not to be murdered in the street.

More broadly, when it comes to violence, Black people are forced into a binary. On the one hand, we’re shown as innately hyper-violent figures like Barrett in Final Fantasy VII. On the other, we’re completely docile and respectable. See: half of Morgan Freeman’s entire filmography. Either sinners or saints, super-predators or docile victims, there’s no room for complexity. Instead, we’re expected to be saintlike: inundated with platitudes wielding the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as a warped cudgel to keep people docile in the face of systemic oppression. This expectation is then reflected in a criminal justice system which aggressively pursues and punishes Black people for even the most minor offenses.

Pushing past these expectations, Lovecraft Country understands that sometimes violence is necessary. When the protagonists are chased and shot at by racists, there’s no hesitation before shooting back, and no judgement in the broader framing. There is never even the slightest attempt to equate racist and anti-racist violence. When the pursuing car crashes there isn’t pontification about whether there were “misguided, good people” involved. This isn’t to say those conversations aren’t worth having, in some contexts, but it’s important that the victims of racism are always the primary concern.

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Episode 5, “A Strange Case’” with Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku), carries another key point at which the ideas around Black violence are subverted. After seeing her manager attempt to sexually assault a co-worker, Ruby gruesomely attacks him with magic abilities she received in the previous episode. The violence here is a lot less clear-cut. It’s a lot more gruesome than just smashing cars or heated self-defense. Once again, however, there is no immediate condemnation. If anything, you’re invited to empathize with her victory and victorious feeling.

Black women with darker skin tones, in particular, are never afforded the luxury of emotional reaction — even compared to other Black people. This disparity could be seen in the response to Serena Williams breaking her racket at the U.S. Open final in 2019. Her display of emotion was represented as animalistic in an Australian cartoon which also represented her (lighter-skinned) Black opponent Osaka as an Aryan white woman. By contrast, Ruby is allowed to be angry and even vicious in her violence, but is never portrayed as inhuman for it.

The presentation of the violence doesn’t land every time. I think there are specific instances where the connotations of particular kinds of violence aren’t always unpacked. However, there’s a real catharsis to be found in a show which unapologetically presents this anti-racist violence. These moments are powerful because they’re almost a fantasy. You wish you could get revenge on the manager who made you feel worthless. You wish you could be Jurnee Smollett with a baseball bat, smashing the cars of the people who made you scared to walk outside at night. You wish the systemic forces had names and (punchable) faces. The reality is infinitely more complicated. There is no magic and are no monsters to rid us of the fear or make us feel better — but there’s no harm in dreaming, either.

In a more concrete sense, it opens up conversation and possibility. Anti-racism is messy and complicated, and often a matter of survival. Expecting a strict stoicism in the face of racist violence is both ineffective and deeply ignorant of the material realities of the Black people victimized by it. In opening up a space for violence, and the complicated discussions of it, Lovecraft Country tacitly recognizes how the individual acts of violence committed by Black people in response to racism never equal those of the system. Instead of being instantly damning, violence becomes one of many responses to be assessed on its own terms. In the midst of constant false equivalences, that complication is a crucial breath of fresh air.

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