Enter “Day 8.” Leti’s housewarming party is in full swing. The boarding house is packed with everyone she knows from the South Side of Chicago. Ruby is singing with the band, Hippolyta comes with leftover food from the funeral and Diana is in the attic, playing on a Ouija board with her friends. This of course, does not end well. The Ouija board spells out George Freeman, and Diana angrily blames her friends, though they swear they didn’t do it. Is it possible that the seeds are being planted for a ghostly return of George?
Tic shows up late, dressed in his military uniform in order to dissuade any white neighbors from attacking the party. But he’s not just there for security. He sees Leti dancing seductively with another man and quickly becomes jealous. When she’s done dancing, she goes upstairs and Tic follows. The two begin having sex on the bathroom sink as Dinah Washington’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” begins playing. When they finish, Tic notices that Leti is bleeding. She blames it on her period and he says it’s no big deal. But when he leaves she begins to cry, and viewers are clued in to the fact that she was a virgin.
The party is interrupted when Hippolyta sees a cross burning on the front lawn. Leti grabs a baseball bat and smashes out the headlights and windows of her racist neighbors’ cars as sirens approach. “Leti’s fighting the patriarchy and white supremacy, and one cannot exist without the other,” Smollett tells THR. “The patriarchy benefits from white supremacy, and white supremacy benefits from the patriarchy.”
Leti is placed into a police van and the cop Captain Lancaster (Mac Brandt) mentions her lengthy record, giving viewers a larger sense of her role in the budding civil rights movement. The cop then asks her if anything strange has happened in her new house, formally known as the Winthrop House. Leti refuses to answer. Lancaster asks her if someone told her to buy that house. When she refuses to answer again, Lancaster gives the signal to the driver to start driving around recklessly, sending Leti slamming around the back of the police van, bloodying her face. Before letting her go, Lancaster tells her that they “found the body parts of eight niggers buried in the room below the basement.”
On “Day 9,” Leti, still bruised from her encounter with Lancaster, develops the pictures from her party in the room below the basement and notices strange marks on them. As she puts them together, she notices a pattern, then a face emerges and rises from the photographs, screaming: “Get out of my house!”
With boarders moving out following the cross-burning incident, and afraid that things will escalate, Ruby tells Leti she doesn’t know how they will afford to keep the place. Still shaken from her ghostly encounter, Leti accidently reveals that she still has some of the money their mother left her, which she used to buy the house. Ruby is devastated that she and their brother were left nothing, and the daughter who did not even attend her mother’s funeral got everything. Leti says she didn’t tell Ruby because she knew it was going to hurt her. Ruby says, “You looked down on Mama, but you’re worse. At least mama didn’t pretend to be anything but selfish.” She tells Leti that she sent Leti money all those years because she thought “you were just a fuck up, but really you’re just fucked up.”
Across town, another family tie is on the cusp of being torn apart as Hippolyta tells Montrose that she knows something isn’t right about George’s death. Montrose asks her what else could have happened to George, and Hippolyta says, “I don’t know. Something.” She feels certain that Montrose and Tic are keeping the truth from her.
On “Day 10,” Leti reveals her discoveries about the Winthrop House to Tic. The previous owner of the house, Hiram Epstein, was a scientist who conducted unethical experiments on Black people who were supplied to him by none other than Captain Lancaster. They realize that the ghosts in the house are eight missing persons who were experimented on by Epstein. The horror that they uncovered in Ardham was not tied to location. It’s pervasive. “I thought the world was one way and I find out it isn’t. And it terrifies me,” Leti confides in Tic.
Leti hires a spiritual exorcist to purge the house, and along with Tic begins the ritual process. At the same time, three racist neighbors decide to break in and are brutally, bloodily dispatched by the horrifying ghosts of the Winthrop House, their bodies dragged down to a cavern underneath the house that has the same magical symbols seen at the Braithwhite Lodge. The exorcist and Tic are possessed and Leti summons all of her strength, all of the spiritual teachings of her mother, and confronts the ghosts, in the process healing their physical abnormalities and souls by letting them claim revenge on the ghost of Epstein.
In the aftermath, Tic goes to the real estate agent who sold Leti the house and discovers the entire business was a front, operated by Christina Braithwhite (Abby Lee). Though her father is dead, it seems The Order of the Ancient Dawn still lives. Tic confronts Christina with a gun and tells her he recognized the name Winthrop on one her father’s paintings at the lodge. Christina reveals that Horatio Winthrop was a member who was banished for stealing pages from The Book of Names. Tic tells her he didn’t come for a history lesson and warns her to “stay the fuck away” from his family. Christina is unbothered and freezes Tic in place, continuing her lesson. The pages from The Books of Names contain powerful spells. Winthrop hid his pages in a booby-trapped vault. Christina entices Tic with the possibility of that power, power he could use to protect himself and those he cares about. “Call me when you’re ready to learn more about our family legacy,” she says to him.
Tic’s place within a world of magic remains to be seen, but for now Leti owns an integral part of that family legacy, and her place is becoming all the more clear. Terrified though she may be, she is just as essential a part of the legacy of the Braithwhites and the Freemans as Tic. As Smollett explains to THR: “Leti desperately is in search of a rebirth.” Ahead, she speaks more about her inspiration for the character, her ghostly confrontation, and the very real struggles still facing Black women.
Leti has a lot of confidence but at the same time, she seems to be constantly running, or in search of something. What is it that Leti is hoping to find?
She’s for sure outwardly this buoyant woman, and she has a reputation for being a bit of a tornado, and a bit of a disrupter. But really she’s in search of her tribe and her people. She suffers from this feeling of displacement and is in a pattern of sabotaging most of the relationships in her life. She pushes people away really because she is a parentified child. She’s inherited this lineage of trauma from her mother, a woman who habitually would abandon her. When that happens to someone you seek healing, you seek to rectify the situation, you seek security, sometimes in the wrong places. It’s led Leti to really reject her family, reject her sister, reject everything that her mother stood for or that reminds her of her mother.
I think what’s captivating about Leti is she’s this free Black, female spirit in the 1950s, which in terms of Lovecraft Country‘s pulp considerations, feels almost mythic.
In mythology [Leti] would probably be a virgin goddess, the one who owns her sexuality, the one who makes her own choices. The one who says, “I am me. Take it or leave it.” She wants to be liberated from how the feminine was defined in 1955. As a Black female, she’s fighting against the patriarchy, and white supremacy. When I was talking about Leti with Misha [Green], one of the things we wanted to explore were her contradictions. How could this woman own her sexuality so much outwardly? Does that mean that she’s automatically sexually promiscuous? It doesn’t have to mean that. She’s someone who seems to be strong, but what are her weaknesses? What is she afraid of? She so desperately wants to be seen in a time when the erasure of Black folks was so prevalent. In a time when our history was being so distorted. [Leti] picks up a camera, very much in the vein of a Gordon Parks, and says, “OK, I’m going to document my people.”
Could you discuss how you and showrunner Misha Green crafted Leti’s characterization? Did you draw from any figures in particular?
I thought about my grandmother a lot when I was first constructing the character of Leti. My grandmother was nicknamed Showtime, and she was the first Ms. Galveston from Galveston, Texas. Her struggle to maintain her dignity was her rebellion. She went to work every day cleaning the homes of white folks, and she raised four children as a single mom. Regardless of how those families mistreated her, or disrespected her, or underpaid her, she wasn’t going to allow them to rob her of her dignity. And every day she’d go to work with her hair and makeup done, her dress ironed, because that’s the power that she could have. And that’s radical. It’s audacious, to pursue your dignity in spite of your circumstances. To pursue your joy in spite of your circumstances. That’s one of the gifts Misha has. She can write these characters who might be going through very oppressive situations, or living in oppressive conditions, and yet the radical aspect of them is they still fight to be happy. They still fight to make love. They still fight to be joyful.
There are so many parallels in the show to what’s happening today in America. If you look at Leti’s experiences as a Black woman in the ’50s, do you think it’s that much different from the experiences of Black women today? Has America changed all that much?
Unfortunately, it feels sometimes when we take steps forward we also take a few steps back. There are similarities for sure. I can relate to Leti on so many areas — in my pursuit of equal opportunities, in my pursuit of the leveling of the playing field. The feeling of displacement. I grew up feeling that. I still feel that. Are you truly at home? There was a dead fish placed on my family’s lawn the day of the Million Man March when I was a kid. I know the feeling of fear you have while driving around Black. I know what it feels like to be discounted by Black men and white people. So these stories [in Lovecraft Country] are timely but they’re also deeply personal. But to be female and Black in 1955, yes I did my research. I wanted to know what made an Eartha Kitt have such fire. What made a Gwendolyn Brooks be so audacious with her words. What made a Lorraine Hansberry be so reflective and nuanced in her storytelling. What allowed that, and also, what did they have to work against? But I can relate to it. Even in 2020.
The third episode serves as this microcosm of Leti’s search for connection and joy, but also her struggle. She’s dealing with racist neighbors and literal ghosts. What’s your reading of Leti’s confrontation of horror on two fronts?
That’s one of the throughlines for Lovecraft Country, the metaphorical versus the literal – reckoning with your past while confronting your present. The story is so ancestral. [Leti] has to liberate her ancestors in order to liberate herself, literally from the past. It’s kind of a meditation on where we are as Black Americans. Can we truly heal if we don’t confront our pasts? If the nation doesn’t confront its ugly past, can it truly be healing? Can you truly belong in a nation that hasn’t really created a place for you? Or will you forever be displaced? When you’re brought to stolen land and are the descendants of stolen people, can you really belong? Interestingly enough, our show asks a lot of these questions. We don’t always answer them, but the questions are asked.
When Leti confronts the ghosts in her new home, it’s such a powerful moment. It’s frightening, but it’s also this healing process not only for the injustices of the past, but for Leti as a community leader. What was your headspace performing that scene?
Interestingly enough, after I did the scene, Misha walked up to me she said, “Oh, this wasn’t just an exorcism of the ghosts. This was an exorcism of Leti.” And it’s true. I felt it. There were so many unexpected things that happened in that scene, and that’s where I bring it back to this idea of blood memory. There were so many moments in that scene, which stands out as one of the top ones, in which, on a molecular level, I could feel my DNA vibrating. That visceral connection that pours through your veins, I could feel it. She can’t move forward without freeing the ancestors of the past and that’s a confrontation that we have to do. No one can do it for us. We all have to heal from that memory, from that trauma, from that lineage we’ve inherited. But it was deep, man. It was powerful. It was sacred. And in general I approached this project in a very spiritual way, and knew that if I did not I would be in trouble because we are engaging in a spiritual warfare though our characters. Racism is a demonic spirit and it’s not fought just face to face, in the obvious, in the flesh. It is fought in the spirit. That scene took everything out of me, but you’ve got to sacrifice something. You’ve got to bring something to the altar.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.