"Lovecraft Country" star: "It's a shame that men and women are being accosted and lynched" today

Courtney B. Vance appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss making HBO's 1950s-set horror series & racial injustices

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 14, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Lovecraft Country (Photograph by Elizabeth Morris/HBO)
Lovecraft Country (Photograph by Elizabeth Morris/HBO)

The love that Black people have always had for science fiction is probably the biggest secret to hit Hollywood. My friends and I loved sci-fi when I was kid back in the '90s, even though we rarely saw ourselves represented in the genre.

I mean there were a few Marvel characters like Storm, Luke Cage, and The Falcon –– and Billy Dee tried to hold us down in "Star Wars" as Lando, who none of us were really a fan of because he wasn't the main guy. And even still, lack of representation never kept us away from enjoying everything from X-Men and Wonder Woman to E.T. –– we loved it all, but it took a long time for that love to hit mainstream. Thankfully the success of movies like "Black Panther," "Get Out," "Us" and television shows like Marvel's "Luke Cage" and The CW's "Black Lightning" have proved that the presence of Black heroes is relevant, necessary, lucrative and normal with so many sci-fi titles out, in production and ready to be released. Among those titles are HBO's new sci-fi historical drama "Lovecraft Country." 

Produced by Jordan Peele and Misha Green and based on Matt Ruff's novel, "Lovecraft Country" follows an unlikely group of Chicagoans, as they road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of a relative. The journey starts off as normal, but quickly becomes terrifying as racist monsters and then actual monsters derail the travelers. Just on the other side of these sci-fi trappings is the unfortunately timeless story of how bigotry has fueled America for not just decades, but centuries. The horrors of H.P. Lovecraft are reflected through the real-life roads they travel through. The all-star cast includes Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Michael Kenneth Williams and Courtney B. Vance.

Many know Vance from "Hamburger Hill," "The Hunt for Red October" and his Emmy Award-winning performance as Johnnie Cochran in "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story." Vance and I got the chance to discuss his role in "Lovecraft Country" recently on "Salon Talks." He touches on the show's relevance and enhanced importance in today's context of the death of George Floyd.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Vance here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to hear more on the show and how he is offering support to actors and artists during this time of crisis in his role as president of SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been surviving COVID?

Just trying to make sure our children are doing their Zooms and doing all of their tutoring and getting themselves ready for the fall. It impacts everyone, but especially the young people and the children. It's a completely different world. We can shift our minds and we're used to making do with what would less, or if there's more, there's abundance, we can roll with that. But so much of the time, the young people, if they don't have the right perspective, they'll take it upon themselves that there's something wrong with them or nobody cares about them. They internalize it, it's not good.

Let's turn to your new series on HBO, "Lovecraft Country." It's shot beautifully. It's like nothing I'd never seen before. For our viewers who aren't really familiar with "Lovecraft Country," can you just give a brief synopsis of what the series is about?

There's three of us. Ms. Jurnee Smollett's character, Leticia, Jonathan Majors's character, Mr. Atticus, and I. We go on a road trip and my family does the Green Book. We find places where African Americans or colored folks, back in the day, Black people in the '60s to be able to travel safely down in the South. And those areas where you can get your hair done, your good meal, get your nails done, and some place where you can stay safely. So we put together and we go down to the various areas and go to these various towns and where these restaurants supposedly are and make sure they are what they are. And then we add them to our books.

We are in the midst of going on a journey down to some Southern town. And my daughter, she's 11 and she's an amazing illustrator. And she takes my map and she turns it into the areas where there's wonderful things down there. She puts little wonderful drawings in when there's a town where supposedly is not good for Black folks, she puts some sort of monstrous drawing there. And somehow her drawings turn into what they are, in addition to the monsters down in the South — the police and the sheriffs and the towns people—who are very angry at folks of color down there.

It turns into something that I don't think we've ever seen before, our road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of Atticus Freeman's father. We're doing the Green Book trip, but at the same time, he's in search of his father who has been missing for two weeks. So, that's the overview. There's a struggle to survive, to overcome both the racist, terrorism, white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback.

As a veteran actor, do you feel like the industry is opening up to more projects where there are elements of magical realism along with a strong historical context? I interview many Black writers, and we talk about how these types of elements can sometimes showcase the Black experience in a more truthful way, by being able to draw from these different places in time. Does that resonate with you as an actor at all?

What resonates with me is great storytelling. If you tell a great story, I don't care if it's "Slumdog Millionaire," I don't care if it's "The French Lieutenant's Woman," I don't care if it's "She's Gotta Have It," I don't care, it's a great story. Just like if you write a great book, a novel, I'm going to want to read it. I think people are focusing on telling good stories. I'm pleased that we're coming to that because we have as many stories in our toolbox as white folks do, and the Native American experience is as important as any. The Asian experience is important. The gay experience is as important as any. The trans experience is as important as any.

We have to allow ourselves to open up the old noodle and let the stories unfold. You may agree or disagree with the story. That's for you. Don't nobody mess with you when you tell your story. I'm watching it. Or I choose not to watch it because that's not my type of story, but the story is still allowed to be told. And I think that "Black Panther" showed the world that our color translates and people will pay to see it around the world. So that whole adage of Black don't travel, was a myth, is a myth. Tell a good story. And if it's marketed just like it's marketed for a Caucasian story, it will translate. Just tell the story and give it the same marketing tools you give to a story that is a white story and all things being equal, people will come.

What kind of challenges come with working on the time piece like "Lovecraft Country"?

You've got to deal with it the time period. You've got to deal with the cars, which are very expensive. You got to deal with the buildings and the neon signs and everything was completely different. So you have to recreate the world and get everyone in that frame of mind, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, get everybody physically in that frame of mind. So it's a much more expensive world because you got to go out and get all of those things to say 1950s: the phones, there were no watches. When we had outdoor scenes, you had to have people dressed in the costumes. You had to have the cars that say 1950s, you had to do all those things and find those towns that look like 1950s.

Where did you shoot "Lovecraft Country"?

We shot it in Chicago. For the pilot we were in and around mostly in the hinterlands of Chicago. And then for the series we shot it in Atlanta.

In discussing your body of work as an actor, I think about your Emmy Award-winning role as Johnnie Cochran in "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story." It was legendary. What process do you go through when you choose your next character? What interested you in playing George Black?

Well, I'm from Detroit and everyone from Detroit is straight up from Mississippi or Alabama. It's a Southern town in the North. The racial situation in Detroit has always been very tense. The '43 riots, the '67 riots, which I lived through, my family lived through, and the tanks came right down our street. There wasn't much for me to prepare in terms of putting myself back there. It's in us. It's in folks of color. Anybody who's of color has had some sort of brush with being followed in a grocery store or department store, or being pulled over or being . . .  the things that white folks potentially have no idea that we have to deal with.

It's very easy in this kind of situation to place yourself when the sheriff comes up to our car and says, "You know this is a sundown town." "We know, yes sir, we know what that means. We know what that means. Yes." You make sure your eyes are down, not eyeballing him and "We're going to do our best to get out of here. So yes, sir, yes, sir."

So it's something that in 2020 eyes, and 2020 sensibilities, people go, "Why is he being so Uncle Tom-ish?" Because he wants to live or she wants to live. It's why it's very timely for us to see this. The idea that there is no recourse.

There was no recourse for George Floyd when that officer, Chauvin, I believe his name was, his knee was on his neck. There was no recourse. There was nothing that they can do to make him stop. That's why I think people blew up on George Floyd because it's the '50s and the '40s and the '20s and the 1880s and '90s all over again. There's something called humanity and when you violate a human right, you have to be called to account for it. That's why I think why people are so incensed including all different races and nationalities around the world. George Floyd has turned into a rallying cry for human rights. When we see something like these "monsters'" behavior by these racist police establishments back in the '50s, we just come right back to today. It's a shame. It's a shame that men and women are being accosted and lynched and dragged today.

As the president of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, you've been putting out videos talking to and supporting your community of artists. Is there any advice that you would like to give artists out there trying to make it through this time?

Find what moves you. One of the initiatives we pulled together is that people are banding together and doing things that move them. This young lady does the entire musical of  "Phantom Of The Opera," for example, or "Wicked" and sings a good majority of the songs and has these little costumes that she puts together and does a mini version of various operas and various new Broadway musicals as something to keep her mind occupied and busy. Finding ways to serve people. That's what the SAG-AFTRA foundation is about. We recognize that once the pandemic hit and everything was shut down, our industry was literally shut down.

All those subsidiary jobs that people use to make ends meet were gone. There was no way for actors and actresses to sustain themselves. Our mission was that we knew we had to do something to give them a sense of purpose for themselves. I would just encourage people if they can, and however they can, to be able to find ways to partner up with people, to create, do some monologues, sing some songs. We have a very dear friend who is an opera singer and she gathered some of her opera friends and they do various arias and then put it out. She calls it the Purple Robe Series. It keeps her occupied and it keeps her involved with her community.

Is there anything else you've been working on that we can watch this summer?

"Project Power," which is on Netflix now and with Jamie Foxx, Ms. Dominique Fishback and Joseph Gordon Levitt. It's a wonderful, wonderful piece about this little pill. And if you take this little pill you get a certain kind of power. You take the pill in order to figure out what kind of power you have. Sometimes people get good powers. Sometimes there's bad powers and you potentially will die from the power. It's a very frightening kind of thing that the authorities are trying to control, but it's a beautiful action flick and Jamie and Joseph and Dominique are so wonderful in it. I saw it a couple of nights ago — phenomenal.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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