This story about Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett from “Lovecraft Country” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
On one level, HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” is a lot of fun, a supernatural horror story that leaps through time to conjure up heroes and monsters and magic spells. But the series, developed by Misha Green from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, is also an unsettling examination of the racism that courses through American history, from slavery to the Tulsa massacre of 1921 to the segregation of the early 1950s. Its 18 Emmy nominations include Outstanding Drama Series, as well as unprecedented lead actor and actress noms for Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett as a couple who become embroiled with magic-wielding white supremacists in New England.
It seems crazy that “Lovecraft Country”is the first drama series to ever have Black performers nominated for Emmys in both the lead actor and lead actress categories.
JURNEE SMOLLETT I still don’t really believe it. I keep trying to fact-check this thing. The truth of it is, it’s an incredible honor to have the work seen and appreciated. But this wise man once told me, “Man gives awards and God gives rewards.” And I already won the reward every day I came to work and my partner was Jonathan Majors as we trucked through this crazy wilderness together.
JONATHAN MAJORS It’s a huge honor. But I learned to operate on a set, especially on this set in particular, from Courtney B. Vance, from Michael K. Williams, from watching Aunjanue Ellis. I’m running through all the gods in my head, all the actors and actresses I admire, and I think, did this never happen before? It’s crazy. But I think it speaks to the relevance and the impact of what “Lovecraft Country” did. It’s a drama, right? We’re not avoiding or mitigating our Black rage or our Black sadness or our Black joy.
On one level this is a supernatural drama, but it’s one that taps into generations of trauma. I would imagine that you’re not just drawing from the page, you’re drawing from that very deep well of trauma.
SMOLLETT Yeah, exactly. I mean, we don’t have to sit and talk about the scenes. I don’t think we talked about the scene when the police officer forces Atticus (Majors) to say, “Will you pretty please let the smart n—– make a U-turn?” We don’t have to talk about that. We have experienced a version of the scene in our life. I have witnessed a brother, a partner, a friend, a lover, so many different men in my life in that dynamic. I am watching him with this person who wants to power trip, and they’re going to try to emasculate him in front of me and then watch me watch that happen. We don’t have to sit and write a dissertation about this. We’ve lived this.
MAJORS What Jurnee was tapping into there, and what your question is prompting, is this idea of blood memory, and what it is to live and be of the African diaspora. Blood memory is being triggered throughout the story. And for the blood memory to come to the screen every Sunday, for the blood memory to sit in people’s homes and for the blood memory to stream across the world, that is a huge step forward.
SMOLLETT Absolutely. And what’s interesting is that we literally travel back to the ancestral plane. It’s incredibly beautiful, this theme of the ancestral spirit pounding through us in the moments when we have to free the ancestors. We call the names of these women and men who were literally tortured throughout history. We have suffered a lot, but we have triumphed a lot. And unfortunately, sometimes our stories don’t show both. I think that’s what we can celebrate and be proud of with “Lovecraft Country”: It’s not just our suffering that we are highlighting. We’re also highlighting the triumph.
In the last year, a lot of people have learned about the Tulsa massacre through Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. How important do you think this kind of art is at this point in time?
MAJORS Well, there’s two types of education. There’s book learning, which will get you far, and then there’s emotional and social intelligence. That will get you, I believe, further. Because when you know better, you do better, as my folks say to me. So that small chapter being examined and brought to the forefront by entertainment is a huge step forward for the education of an entire people. It gives you knowledge. It gives you power. And that is what triggers and renders change.
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.