Jurnee Smollett on Why Lovecraft Country Is Protest Art


From Harper's BAZAAR


You’ll know when Lovecraft Country is on when the tweets start rolling in on Sunday nights. There’s a reaction to a jump scare here, expletives toward a villain there, and, usually, Jurnee Smollett’s live commentary in the mix, paired with cheeky GIFs and fan retweets.

“Somebody get Ruby!!!!! Please!!!!!!” she posts during one episode. “What!?! Why!?! Huh!!! How!??” she presses in another. It’s like the screams from a theater audience during a scary movie, but in 280 characters or less.

Smollett, who plays leading lady Letitia Lewis, is blown away by Lovecraft Country’s instant fandom. “It’s taken off in a way that you can never really expect or predict, and just to see the way the art is impacting people is very moving,” she tells BAZAAR.com. But what impresses her more is the viewers’ attentiveness to the cultural references in the 1950s-set visuals.

Though the horror and fantasy series involves H.P. Lovecraft’s creatures and conjurers, as interpreted by Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, showrunner Misha Green also celebrates Black history in her version, often re-creating tableaus from Gordon Parks’s iconic photography. “To see that they’re picking up on historical aspects of it and the nod that the show pays, all of the little nuggets and eggs that Misha has so brilliantly laid out, that’s very, very thrilling for me,” Smollett says.

Green’s take on the genre is what drew Smollett to the project. The actress, whose résumé ranges from Denise Frazer in Full House to Black Canary in Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, previously worked with the showrunner for WGN America’s underground railroad series, Underground. “Misha has found a way to reimagine this genre [of horror] in such a radical way, and to center Black voices and have us explore our joy, have us explore the love, the secrets, the demons that we struggle with, fighting for family, and then the hurt that you’re capable of experiencing within your family,” Smollett muses. “Seeing Black folks swim and dance and fight off demons and participate in magic, it’s an honor to be a part of something that feels so disruptive.”

Smollett has long been a fan of thrillers, fantasies, and sci-fi. “I think there’s so much power in fear,” she says. “We see how it can be weaponized, right?” But as a Black actress, she felt excluded from them. “As an artist, it was quite frustrating to feel that I couldn’t participate in these genres, because, in loving them so much, you often, as a Black artist, feel shut out from them—unless you want to be the collateral damage, killed off early or not really giving substance to the plot, just dismissed in a way that is not very satisfying as an artist.”

Now, “disruptive” works like Jordan Peele’s films (he’s also an executive producer on Lovecraft), Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, and Regina King’s performance in Watchmen give Smollett hope.

It is not lost on viewers that Lovecraft Country, which juxtaposes forest monsters with white supremacist wizards and magic potions with racist cops, is painfully timely as the country continues to protest police killings and violence, and demand justice for crimes that seem impossible to question. “This is, essentially, protest art,” Smollett says of the series. “But more than that, we’re just telling the truth.”

The last few months have been “such a wild, sobering time” for the star, as it has been for many Americans—a period of isolation, mourning, unrest, and uncertainty. “There’s such a feeling of collective grief that I’ve been trying to process and inspect and work through.”

In the midst of it all, she’s trying to stay creative; she’s busy caring for her young son; she’s teaching herself guitar; she joins a protest when she can. “I’m doing what I can to do my part.”

Ahead, Smollett opens up more, chatting about how she created Leti Lewis, the power of Black women in leadership, and the grim timeliness of Lovecraft Country.

Leti is such an alluring character. She's powerful and strong willed, but also has a secretive past. I'm wondering what the discussions were between you and Misha Green about bringing this character to life.

We discussed a number of things. We discussed dignity in the face of oppression. We discussed Leti's desire to be seen in a time in which the erasure of Black folks was so prevalent, her desire to pick up the camera to see her people, to document her people, very much so like a Gordon Parks. I did a lot of research and went back to this era in trying to understand what environmental elements can create a Leti Lewis.

It had me exploring everything from Sundown Towns and the guidebook [the Green Book] to the artists and writers of that time. When you have someone like a Gwendolyn Brooks, her poetry was such a big influence on building Leti. The world that a Lorraine Hansberry could document was an influence.

And then, I've spoken a lot about this as well, my grandmother was nicknamed Showtime. She was a beauty queen, the first Black Ms. Galveston in Galveston, Texas, in the 1940s. Growing up, I would hear stories my mother, my aunts, uncles would tell about my grandmother. I never met her, because she passed away when my mom was pregnant with my oldest brother. But I would hear stories about this beauty queen, this woman, who could play cards with the best of them and would drink Jack and Coke. She'd throw these parties, and she was the life of the party with the music going, and she was a single mom of four kids that she had back-to-back. In the South, in the 1950s, that was not what you were supposed to do. She, as a single mom, took care of her kids and went to work cleaning the homes of white folks, which is, interestingly enough, something Leti said she'll never do.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

She would not let these people—these families whose homes she went into—she wouldn't let them rob her of her dignity. My mom would talk about how she would make sure her dress was pressed and her hair and makeup was done. She would be a walking symbol of dignity and pride. She had this indomitable spirit. That was her rebellion, that she was going to say, "Despite society trying to erase me, and despite these people underpaying me, neglecting me, and mistreating me, they can't rob me of my dignity."

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," as Eleanor Roosevelt would say, right? Don't give them that consent.

There were so many things that Misha and I talked about. We talked about, What makes her so self-possessed? She owns her own sexuality in a way that we don't get to see. It's interesting, the response we got from episode 3. Some folks were surprised that she was a virgin. When she had sex with Tic, that was her first time. One of things Misha and I wanted to inspect was this idea of female sexuality, that just because she doesn't wear pantyhose or she dances sensuously up against a guy and eye-fucks Tic while doing it, it doesn't mean she is necessarily promiscuous. Just because she's comfortable in her sexuality, she owns her body, that doesn't equate to her being promiscuous, or even sexually experienced.

We talked a lot about her faith. Faith plays a big role in Leti's character arc, as does family, rejection of family, rejecting family. She doesn't go to her mother's funeral, which was one of the biggest clues into Leti, for me.

Episode 3 was one of my favorites. The scene in the end, when you're setting the ghosts free from the basement of your house, is especially chilling. You said yourself, it's probably one of the most challenging scenes you've ever had to do. Tell me a little bit more about that experience and bringing that scene to life.

Oh, I really had to surrender to the spirit. It's quite symbolic, because one of the themes we're communicating is this need to heal from our past. And Leti calls out the names of ancestors who were tortured, one of them being Anarcha, a woman who was so violently tortured over and over again, brutally. I mean, when you read some of these stories, you just don't understand how she could survive these elements, these ritualistic, habitual torturing sessions. It's just a testament to the strong people we come from, that we come from resilience. But Leti's at a place where she was killed and brought back to life, and yet she doesn't feel alive. She feels like a ghost herself. So, in order to free the ancestors, and in order to exorcise them, she has to exorcise herself as well.

You got to face your past in order to heal from your past. When Leti says, "You're not dead yet. You can still fight," Misha and I realized, Leti's saying that to herself as well. And Jonathan [Majors] was such a great scene partner. Oh, my goodness. It was a moment in which every fiber of my being … I talk a lot about blood memory, this visceral, ancestral connection to the oppression of my people. I felt my whole body vibrating at a molecular level.

It was one of those moments where the entire set was quiet while we were doing it, which, we had such an awesome crew for them to respect the sacred space that we were in. But it was quite exhausting. It was one of those moments when you feel that you have just given every single part of yourself, just wildly abandoned yourself and gave it all over in service of the text. And I completely shot out my voice.

Jonathan was so sweet. The next day, I showed up at my trailer and he had bought me all this tea and honey. The whole cast, we just looked after each other and had each other's backs.

The dynamic between Atticus and Leti is really palpable. What was it like building that with Jonathan Majors on set?

It was quite special. It's hard to put into words. I think at first, we were feeling each other out, like, "Okay, who's this person? Okay, who's he?" But we, at the right part, really became partners in crime. We developed this trust that we needed in order to be able to go to these places together, because the text requires so much of you. I mean, he just was a dream scene partner, one who, it felt like we were pushing each other and challenging each other, but also being there to support each other and have each other's backs. I think it's rare to find that level of camaraderie. But with a story like this, we wouldn't have been able to tell it without it.

And there was just such a mutual understanding of this mighty path we were taking alone, but also the real gentle, mutual respect that you need to do it, to approach the text with care, to approach the text with reverence. It was great. He's such a talent, he really is, and I'm so blessed to have had him as my partner in this.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

The show has an added layer of significance arriving in the wake of a nationwide, and even global, reckoning on race, systematic racism, and police brutality. What do you feel is the importance of telling this story at this time?

I think it goes back to what Nina Simone said when she talked about, "The duty of the artist is to reflect the time." This is, essentially, protest art. But more than that, we're just telling the truth. The unfortunate truth is that as a nation, the systemic racism that this nation has been built upon has yet to be dismantled. Those who sit in a place of privilege, through either action or inaction, have supported that system, have upheld that system. We're at a space in society where we're leaning into challenging each other, because the system can't be dismantled by one group of people.

What does it mean to be an ally? What does it mean to be truly anti-racist? Is allyship even enough? Is it enough to say you're not a racist? Well, what are the actions, because through action or inaction, you're supporting policies, you're supporting ideology, you're supporting theories, you're supporting your own privilege, right? So, what action or inaction are we all taking to dismantle the system? Look, [Lovecraft Country is] entertainment at the end of the day, but the thing about art is art has power. We can explore these issues through art, and Misha's done [it in] such a clever way, because the show's not preachy. It's just truthful. I think that has a greater impact, when you just tell the truth.

Your comments on allyship bring to mind the character of Christina. Abbey Lee spoke to us recently about her character and how, as a woman, she wants to fit in with her male peers, but also has to put down Black people to achieve some sort of power. I feel like there is some modern relevance to that, too, when you see a non-intersectional version of feminism. I was wondering if that stuck out to you.

I mean, listen. I can talk about that, too, for 500 years. I am on the board of Time's Up, and one of the things that we regularly talk about is intersectionality and how the success and impact of this movement will be measured by its ability to be truly intersectional, because women's movements of the past have, historically, left out Black folks, Black women, and Brown women, and women of all kinds. Enough of that. Leti is fighting against the patriarchy and white supremacy. But the patriarchy benefits from white supremacy, and white supremacy benefits from the patriarchy. One cannot exist without the other. It is interesting to see how the oppressed can use the oppressor's tools, right?

White women have a privilege of being … they don't always have to stand up for the other, because they oftentimes will benefit from this very system they're trying to fight against, right? The burden of the Black female is we have this double jeopardy of having to fight the patriarchy and white supremacy at the same time. I think these themes are very relevant now, in a very sobering way, because they shouldn't be relevant.

How much longer are we going to watch stories told like this and be like, "This is what's happening now"? I mean, I say all the time, when people ask me about the timeliness of Lovecraft: When, since 1619, would Lovecraft Country and the themes we explore not be timely? That's the sobering reality of our nation. We are still talking about intersectionality. We are still having to tell people that we matter. I mean, it's abysmal, okay?


Now, we're in an industry in which an Ava DuVernay, a Gina Prince-Bythewood, a Misha Green are rare. When they come through the door and break shit open, when you get an Ava DuVernay shepherding all these Black female directors, and when you get a Gina Prince-Bythewood breaking records on a Netflix movie, or when you get a Misha Green disrupting a classic genre, this shouldn't be rare anymore, but it is.

I've worked a lot with Stacy Smith at USC on the Annenberg Initiative. She does these amazing studies, and one talks about the fact that from 2007 to 2019, of over the top 1,300 films, 1 percent were directed by women of color. One percent?! That is abysmal.

I mean, it's ridiculous that the data shows how women of color, continuously, are shut out of the filmmaking process, at every level, at the executive level, behind the scenes, in front of the camera.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

You're in a great position where you get to work with multiple Black women at the helm, including Misha and directors like Victoria Mahoney and Cheryl Dunye. What message would you have for other production teams about the importance of putting Black women in positions of power?

I think we're just in a time where, for one, audience members are hungry to see the gaze expanded. For too long, it's been a straight, cis, white male gaze, and that is not the way the world looks. The stories have been so limited to a very narrow point of view, and we're hungry to see the world reflected on-screen. So, the balance of power is going to shift whether the old guard wants it to or not, because people aren't waiting anymore for it. They're just doing it. But there's such beauty and power in exploring new stories through new points of view, and you see the results of it. It's refreshing. It feels new and exciting.

I would just challenge creators to step up out of their comfort zones, reach out to young, Black female writers and directors and producers, support them, collaborate with them. They actually have an enormous amount of art to offer the world. I'm so excited to see this Frances McDormand movie [Nomadland] directed by Chloe Zhao. I mean, cannot wait, cannot wait to see it. It's going to take more people like that doing that, of like, "Oh, they're seeing us."

I'm just excited because there are so many folks who aren't waiting to be seen. There are so many folks who are just coming in and doing it without asking for permission.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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