BLACK VOICES

Jurnee Smollett Was Built For ‘Lovecraft Country’

Those soul-stirring moments in Episode 3 of “Lovecraft Country” recall several powerful scenes from the actor’s career.
Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country."
Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country."

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Episode 3 of “Lovecraft Country.”

Jurnee Smollett sure can take you there

As Letitia Lewis, in Episode 3 of HBO’s epic horror drama “Lovecraft Country,” the 33-year-old actor pulls the audience into a haunting yet soul-stirring exorcism, where sorrow and anger wash over the body, conjuring up the pain of the past and placing it right at your feet.

This engrossing two-minute scene comes in the final act of “Holy Ghost” and plays out to the driving beat of Shirley Caesar’s “Satan, We’re Going To Tear Your Kingdom Down.” With the help of an exorcist, Letitia and Atticus (Jonathan Majors) confront the souls of eight Black residents who had gone missing on the South Side of Chicago — and their killer.

Hiram Epstein, a white scientist, had been experimenting on human bodies in the Winthrop House, a straight-up scary Victorian home on Chicago’s North Side. Those spirits — faces bloodied, bodies mangled — were stuck in the house and had been awakened when Leti and her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) decided to turn the ramshackle building into a boarding house for aspiring artists.

As Leti, Jurnee Smollett is in search of home and family, but first, she must confront the demons of the past.
As Leti, Jurnee Smollett is in search of home and family, but first, she must confront the demons of the past.

In her darkroom, she exposes the house’s nasty past to the light. Released from the bowels of the Winthrop basement, Epstein’s specter takes control of Atticus’ body, using him as a vessel to demand that Leti leave the house. It’s a scary scene, but apparently, Letitia fucking Lewis ain’t afraid of no ghosts. Leti lets out a muffled scream before calling out for help. She summons the ancestors, empowering them to stand their ground. 

“You’re not dead yet!” Leti screams. “You can still fight.”

One by one, those Black souls show up, join hands and chant around Atticus until he gives up the ghost; Epstein stands surrounded by Leti and the ancestors, whose strength and fortitude force him out.

With few words, Smollett is dynamic and magnetic in the scene, using her own physicality and body language to take control. Her shoulders lead, chest heaves, and her voice unshakably demands Epstein’s exit until every ounce of the fire inside her has extinguished him. It’s cathartic. It’s powerful. It’s spiritual. 

In her darkroom, Smollett's character Leti exposes the Winthrop House’s nasty past to the light.
In her darkroom, Smollett's character Leti exposes the Winthrop House’s nasty past to the light.

Smollett’s performance recalls several other high-intensity moments from her 30-year career. Yes, she was introduced to us as a child actress in “Full House,” “On Our Own,” “Eve’s Bayou” and “Selma, Lord, Selma.” (She got her SAG card at age 3.) But from “The Great Debaters” to “Underground” to “Lovecraft Country,” Smollett has mastered roles that require a certain level of unadulterated vigor, so many of them rooted in the Black experience and the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. She can take up space in any period and genre to stake her rightful place in cinematic history.

“I love creating protest art,” Smollett, who has worked with activist groups since she was 12, said in a roundtable conversation in early August. “[‘Lovecraft Country’] is a family drama in which the families are in pursuit of protecting their family.”

As Leti, she’s in search of home and family, but first, she must confront the demons of the past. In the premiere, she joins Atticus and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) on a mission to find Atticus’ father Montrose (Michael K. Williams). What starts as a calm road trip quickly turns into an action-packed voyage as the trio dodges the threat of white supremacy at every turn in 1950s-Jim Crow America.

“Get your ass up! We gotta get the fuck outta here now!” Leti says to Atticus and George while running out of a diner. With the police on their heels, she takes the wheel on a high-speed chase out of town.

That scene echoes Smollett’s starring role in Misha Green’s “Underground,” where she first showed her acting prowess as a leading lady. In the short-lived heist thriller, Smollett portrays Rosalee, a shy house slave in antebellum Georgia who decides to run away with Noah (Aldis Hodge), who had been planning an escape from the Macon plantation. Though hesitant to run — she’d leave behind her mother and younger brother — she changes her mind after a violent run-in with the plantation’s overseer.

“We got to go now,” she hastily tells Noah in Episode 3 of the series. “We gotta run right now! He dead!” The heist begins as they steal away from the plantation.

Later in the series, when Noah is set to be lynched, Rosalee stages a heist of her own and steals back the love of her life in broad daylight. Noah, with a noose around his neck, spots Rosalee, dressed as a vigilante in the crowd that’s gathered to watch three enslaved men be hanged. Rosalee lights a torch, sets the area — where explosives have been planted — ablaze, and gets Noah into a carriage to continue their escape. (If you love “Lovecraft Country” and haven’t watched “Underground,” it is one of the most underrated drama series of the last 10 years. Go watch it on Hulu.) Smollett, who was pregnant while shooting Season 2 of the series, proved her chops as a fierce and fearless action hero, setting the stage for her to take on Black Canary in this year’s Harley Quinn superhero flick “Birds of Prey.”

“She brings truth to every role and is so ferocious. But a lot of what we talked about on ‘Underground,’ we continued in ‘Lovecraft Country,’” said Green, creator of both shows. “What’s the vulnerability underneath this woman’s strength? Let’s see both sides of her.”

Jermaine Williams, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker in "The Great Debaters."
Jermaine Williams, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker in "The Great Debaters."

We saw Smollett’s quiet strength in 2007’s “The Great Debaters.” She stars as Samantha Booke, the first woman on the debate team at Wiley College, a historically Black college in Marshall, Texas. In 1935, the team goes on to compete against Oklahoma City University, becoming the first Black college to debate a white university. It is this scene that could convince anyone that Smollett had the chops to be a star.

In a Southern drawl, with a breathless refrain and determined look in her eye, she plants both feet steady behind the podium to argue why Black students should be admitted to state universities.

“My opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college. To share the same campus. To walk into the same classroom. Well, would you kindly tell me when that day is gonna come? Is it going to come tomorrow? Is it going to come next week? In a hundred years? Never? No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

Jurnee Smollett as Eve Batiste in "Eve's Bayou."
Jurnee Smollett as Eve Batiste in "Eve's Bayou."

That same fiery spirit was there early on. In 1997, she starred in director Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou,” a Southern gothic drama about a Creole family in the bayous of Louisiana. It was her first feature role on the big screen. As Eve Batiste, she is the jealous sister turned girl seeking vengeance after her father’s infidelity and sister’s secret rock her small world to its core.

Smollett approached the role — going toe-to-toe with industry vets Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield — seemingly with ease. Two years later, she starred in the made-for-TV docudrama “Selma, Lord, Selma” as Sheyann Webb, an 11-year-old girl who is determined to march with Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for voting rights for Black Americans. 

“There’s nothing indulgent about Jurnee’s acting, ever,” Lemmons told The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s never a moment where you don’t believe her.”

Smollett’s role choice has been intentional from the very beginning. (Her mom turned down several offers early in her career because they weren’t up to snuff for what she was hoping for her daughter’s career.) As an adult, Smollett has adopted a similar approach to choosing her projects: Her resume is filled with meaningful roles with a bit of range. That’s what makes her portrayal of Letitia Lewis resonate.

Leti is strong but soft; she is steadfast in her desires but also a bit of a wanderer. She is the consummate multidimensional woman fighting for her place in the world, much like Smollett herself. You believe her because she is her. That’s why the exorcism scene leaves you breathless along with Smollett, and perhaps a few tears fall from your eyes, too. It’s also the reason you cheer Leti on when she busts the windows out of the cars of her white neighbors who had been terrorizing her since she moved to the block. 

“I was so wildly convinced that there was no fucking person who could play Leti Lewis but me that I became obsessed,” Smollett said in the Hollywood Reporter interview. “I was like, ‘What the fuck, does she not see that I am Leti Lewis?’”

But perhaps that can be said of all of Smollett’s roles. She truly becomes the character. She is the outspoken young woman speaking about inequality. She is the sister who will stand by her family. She is the freedom fighter. But with “Lovecraft Country,” Smollett’s star shines just a bit brighter, and finally, all eyes are on her.