Noirstalgia: Lovecraft Country and Escaping the White Gaze
By Brandon Matsalia
Lovecraft Country debuts next month with the promise of exploring Lovecraftian horrors from the perspective of Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors), a Black man and science fiction aficionado traversing the Jim Crow era South in search of his missing father. Joining Atticus on his quest are his childhood friend Leticia Dandridge (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and his equally bookish uncle, George Black (Courtney Vance). At a time when the United States is in the midst of widespread protests over the systemic inequalities that continue to oppress Black people, the premise of the show, as well as its source material, invites scrutiny. Particularly, the scrutiny is because of the hazard of the white gaze, the phenomenon by which Black people are viewed through the filter of white ethnocentrism.
Another Version of The Help?
The show, and the novel from which the show is adapted, draw both name and inspiration from American scribe H.P. Lovecraft. He’s a white man who is as well known for his famed Cthulhu mythos as he is his legacy of anti-Black racism. Matt Ruff, the author of the novel in question, is also a white man. Given the aforementioned context, and that the protagonists of Lovecraft Country are three Black people in a story written by a white man, it is reasonable for the Black audience to be concerned about how these characters will be rendered in the narrative, and how the story’s milieu will be framed.
After all, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help similarly featured Black protagonists combatting the snare of white supremacy in the South, yet the novel and its film adaptation are widely regarded by Black scholars as a disservice to the discourse on white supremacy’s impact on Black Americans. No matter how well-meaning Stockett was, The Help is a story that ultimately diminishes the agency and experiences of its Black characters in order to center a white savior in the struggles of Black women.
Great American Noirstalgia
Centering whiteness is ingrained in every facet of society in the United States of America. It’s a fact made most evident by the resurgence of the political slogan, “Make America Great Again,” the shibboleth of conservatives that consider the current state of our society untenable because of progressivism. The slogan has become the rallying cry of those that call for a return to the “traditional values” of yesteryear, even though said values intentionally excluded a large swath of society (read: people that were not Christian, straight, white, and male).
The phrase “Make America Great Again” is not only a bigoted dog-whistle, but the invocation of myth: of Americana realized through the lens of Rockwellian sentimentality. This myth is the demarcation between white America’s false perception of the past as idyllic and Black America’s remembrance of the past as a time of overt white supremacist violence. This myth is why white America is filled with a longing for poodle skirts and chocolate malts when they see Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway. Whereas Black America looks upon that painting only to recall that white police officers beat and arrested Black children for daring to patronizing diners similar to the ones featured in Rockwell’s work.
The assertion that there is some “great” to return to is thus predicated upon the erasure of the condition of Black lives in those supposed halcyon days. Consequently, this erasure is why the quaint images and cultural experiences of the past that imbue white people with the warmth of nostalgia are for Black people a source of what I refer to as “noirstalgia”. Noirstalgia is the dissonance resulting from collective memories that cause white people to rejoice, but Black people to mourn.
Art and Responsibility in Lovecraft Country
Though Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy rife with preternatural beasts, it still has the responsibility of attending to realism with regard to how it portrays Black people and the culture of the South in the 1950s. As such, the story must be free of the white gaze, and void of the whitewashing that fraudulently depicts the past as approximating something utopic. So how does Lovecraft Country succeed with said objectives?
Having been privileged with the opportunity to watch the first episode of the show, I can say that thus far, Lovecraft Country represents a concerted effort to push back against the white gaze, both in front of and behind the camera. Though much attention has been given to the fact that Jordan Peele is among the producers for the show, greater adulation should have been reserved for the showrunner, Misha Green. She is the Black woman responsible for creating the hit historical drama, Underground. Under Green’s stewardship, Lovecraft Country has a much needed Black voice to speak truth to power for the Black experience, past and present. A connection made clear from the first few minutes of the episode.
*Spoilers in the Next Section*
The episode begins with Atticus having a dream in which Jackie Robinson uses his baseball bat to vanquish the cosmic fiend, Cthulhu. The dream is a gesture symbolic of Black people’s fight against the evils of white supremacy. When Atticus awakens from his dream, he and an elderly Black woman are forced to walk several miles to the nearest town when the segregated bus they are on breaks down, and no provision is made for them to get a ride.
While trekking to town, the elderly woman inquires about the novel Atticus is reading, A Princess of Mars. When the elder learns that the protagonist, John Carter, is a former Confederate soldier, she chastises Atticus for reading it and condemns the novel as a whole for making a hero out of a man who fought to uphold slavery. The exchange is rather timely given the current debate about tearing down Confederate statues and renaming military bases named after former Confederate generals.
Later in the episode, when Atticus, Letitia, and George encounter otherworldly creatures, their response is comparatively muted to an earlier part of the episode when they have a run-in with a racist cop in a sundown town. At its core, Lovecraft Country is a show that acknowledges that for Black people, the violence of white supremacy will always be more terrifying than any eldritch horror the imagination can conjure. The recognition of that fact centers Blackness in a way few stories have, which makes Lovecraft Country one of HBO Max’s more compelling propositions.
Check out the Trailer here.