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Think to learn more from Waywire in Philadelphia. This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross today. Sister Helen Prejean, who's best known for her work with people on death row and her activism opposing the death penalty. Sister Helen's memoir, Dead Man Walking, was adapted into a 1995 film. In her new memoir, she writes about becoming a nun at age 18 before the reforms of Vatican two, back when nuns wore habits and observed blind obedience to their superiors.
She'll describe how her life changed after Vatican two and how she was awakened to social justice.
Also, I'll review the new HBO miniseries Lovecraft Country, whose production team includes Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. Today's guest is Sister Helen Prejean, whose latest memoir, River of Fire, comes out in paperback this month, you may know her and her story from a previous memoir which was titled Dead Man Walking. That book told how she became an activist against the death penalty. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon. In 1982, Sister Helen became a spiritual adviser to a convicted killer on death row.
She's since accompanied six people to their executions and her latest memoir, River of Fire, recounts her overall spiritual journey and her awakening to social justice movements. She entered the convent in 1957, joining the congregation of St. Joseph just a few years later. Beginning in 1962, her life was opened up by the reforms of Vatican to the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church.
It wasn't until the 1980s that she started to see her role as being with the poor and the imprisoned. River of fire came out in 2019, the same year Attorney General William Barr announced the resumption of federal executions after a 17 year moratorium.
Last month, three federal inmates were executed within one week. Terry Gross spoke with Sister Helen Prejean last year when River of Fire was first published. That book ends with Sister Helen's letter to Pope Francis, which she personally delivered to him, in which she shares her concern about the wound she believes infects every aspect of church life the way the church treats women.
Sister Helen Prejean, welcome back to Fresh Air. You had not planned to be a social activist nun. You hadn't planned on being an anti death penalty activist. What did you imagine being a nun would be like when you joined the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph at age 18?
Well, it was what the Holy Rule said and what convent life was like before Vatican to you join the religious life to seek a spiritual life of perfection, of union with God, love of neighbour, which was semi cloistered. You never ate with laypeople where you taught at the school. It was a daily regimen of prayers, a lot of vocal prayers. The rosary litanies, but precious in the day were two half hour periods of silence where you could have meditation.
And so it was under this strict thing of canon law for all religious women, which had come out in 1949.
Strict thing of the way that you got to holiness was by obedience to superiors. So no questioning. He was called blind obedience and by being obedient, that was how he got holy. You gave up self-willed. And in the process as I experienced it, you also began to give up a lot of thinking, critical thinking, because you knew what you had to do was conform in the end to whatever was being asked of you. And that is what I entered into.
I wanted to be a mystic.
So did you feel that blind obedience and a lack of critical thinking were leading you closer to the mystical state that you wanted to be in, that you imagined being a nun would lead you closer to you?
I just want to tell you, I tried hard. I really did. But what I began to experience just existentially inside myself was I was giving up critical thinking. It was what our mother says. It's got to be what it is.
And then you just follow the rule. Mother Superior, not your mother. Yeah, no. Mother Spirit's right. In religious life, you call superiors. Mother and I began to find that it was kind of a quietism. It was kind of well, I'm praying, but I wasn't intellectually stirred and I began to find it very confining. Luckily, I wasn't in it that long. Like just five years before Vatican two happened in the church and opened up doors of inquiry, exploration and relating to the world.
So, yeah, you're talking about how nuns were treated, compared notes to priests like you write that in the spiritual manuals of the day before Vatican two, that topping the list of womanly virtues was obedience, submission and resignation. So that's what you are supposed to practice. What about people like men who are becoming priests? Was there an emphasis for them on obedience, submission and resignation?
They had to give obedience to a bishop, but they were much more freewheeling and they didn't make a vow of poverty. So they had money. If their family had money, they could have cars, they can have a boat. They could have a condominium. It was just like they were much more freewheeling and they would make decisions and act out of them. But their life was not in community the way ours was. As sisters, I found him often very.
Only, so that was a downside for them. Let's talk about what you had to wear before Vatican two. What was it like wearing the habit? How did it feel? Did you feel like it was separating you from the world or just giving you a kind of uniform that told the world who you were and that got respect?
Well, in a Catholic context, and you got to know that during this time, the religious women religious orders were the ones that made the Catholic institutions run the whole educational system in hospitals. So in a Catholic context, people were used to the habit. They saw it as a as an object of respect. And and traditional Catholics found it very hard when we took to habit off. But the habit because you got to get this, Terry, it was three and a half yards of black wool search wrapped around your body.
Everything covered. You not only had long flowing sleeves, but you had what was called under sleeves. You not only had a long black flowing veil, but you had a under veil and you had what was called a carnet around your neck and three other pieces of cloth on your head so that you were let's just say you were covered. In fact, one of our sisters, one time she was in this material store cloth and she was standing there and she felt somebody pulling on her veil.
And she turned around to this surprise lady who thought she was a of material in the way she was.
How are you going to know she's not a bolt? The media with all that black, that's all you saw in New Orleans is hot and humid.
No, God, you want to I mean, we had a funny sister, Sister Bergert, and she got on the bus one day, one of the ladies on the bus all this July. And lady said, oh, look at those sisters.
Anyways, look as crisp and fresh is daisies. And Gert leans over, whispers to the sister next to a kid. What is that rolling down my leg. You sweat you in a puddle.
It was really, really hot. But you know what? It's interesting how you adapt to things. So you expect it to be hot. You moved into that. And so in a summer you were hot.
Has the burka ever seemed similar to you? Absolutely. Have it. Uh, you know what I think of it, Terry?
I when I'm in an airport and I see people in burkas like we were like that, we were covered head to toe to wear the veil over our heads. I think of it a lot. Mm hmm.
And what does that say to you both about burqas and about habits?
Well, they're very, very similar. And they come out of a religious tradition and the way women to be modest, we're covered also. See, that can be great respect and wear in the burka, because if it's coming from the inner religious motives of devotion, people can dress any kind of way they want.
You entered the convent when you were in your late teens. This is just a few years before Vatican two, which initiated really groundbreaking reforms in the Catholic Church. And you write that the new insights of Vatican to help you get your selfhood back after your futile attempts to relinquish it, because part of what you were taught as a novitiate was to, as we were talking about, be be obedient, be submissive and and kind of turn off your critical thinking, which is in a way, a denial of of the actionable self.
But also, as you point out in the book, you were too young to really know yourself.
I mean, you didn't really fully know what your self was.
So what was it like to be able to assert yourself and remain a nun after Vatican two? And what were some of the ways you were able early on to assert yourself in ways that you couldn't before?
I just want to say, you said when I was a novitiate, it's not the nebish.
It is the place I was a novice novice. Yes, right. I know a lot of people do that right there.
OK, so waking up to self. Well, first of all, you would have to have permission during the days of blind obedience. Mother would have to approve any book you read. So you're doing this reading. And of course we are free to read and we're free to talk to each other. Before we were always in a time of silence. She didn't talk to each other except at recreation. So we meet in these little huddles. Did you look at this book?
Did you read this book? And we sharing the books with each other.
It was just a wonderful time of freedom. So first of all, what are you reading intellectually, how you challenged? The other thing is that you could. Yourself, by having the freedom to write letters and receive mail without mother reading your mail. I mean, when I look back on that, it couldn't have been more restrictive.
You'd write a letter, you put it on mother's desk and she would check it. She would read it. My sister Miriam is really funny. She'd write to me. She knew Mother Noemi, our mistress, was reading the mail. So she'd be telling me news and then she'd say, Hi, mother, know me?
No, you read this. Hope you have a good day. So anyway, you can just see for intellectual freedom.
And then the other thing was being able to choose a growing into what your service would be, what your ministry would be, as opposed to being assigned it absolutely being assigned.
I mean, by a standard I mean, we all going to chapel. We are quiet. Oh, God help me. I'm about to be assigned out of nowhere. And then you'd hear silence in the chapel and the soft pad of shoes, and then by your pew would be a sister who would hand you a little white slip of paper. Dear sister Lois. Augusten, that was my name in religion. Then it is the will of God for you to go to St.
. Francis Cabrini to teach in middle school.
Bu some of us sisters who wanted to be nurses, they would get the little slip of paper you're assigned to teaching. Or if you wanted to teach and you were a nurse, it was just moving pieces around on a chessboard because blind obedience was supposed to cover everything.
So Vatican two as a turning point in many ways. And one very profound turning point is that it basically said the church can change absolute things don't have to remain the same forever.
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You're not talking about a monolithic body and you're not mainly talking about the hierarchy. The church, as Vatican two said, is the people. So you have people's experience bubbling up all over the place. So you have people going to the border right now to be with the asylum seekers and the ones separated from their children. That speaking. And then what happens is as people awaken and as your heart is moved, as we're moved by compassion, by the suffering, then we are moved to action and that bubbles up.
So there all these little bubbles coming up all over the Catholic Church.
Another thing regarding Vatican, too, you say at last we got to reclaim our humanness, all of it, including our physical selves, our bodies, our desires, even our sexuality. I was surprised to see sexuality and that you were.
Of course you were. I mean, come on. Yeah, well, of course, sexuality, you know, sexuality is present in us.
And a lot of ways it's not just having genitals, sex with people.
Sexuality is part of our being.
So so that's a part of the being you were supposed to suppress if you were a nun.
Well, acting out of sexuality where you made a vow of celibacy and here you are having affairs and having sex, that's not integral. That's not transparent. That's not true.
But so, of course, when we never talked about sexuality, everything was sublimates, sublimate sublimely, which means you just offered to God. But sexuality is our body. It's our self. It's it's part of who we are. So the challenge of celibacy is it's not not to love anyone or not to love and friendship. But do you know that one of the levees around your river is that you will not go into full sexual expression with someone? And one of the reasons for that is because it's so self absorbing and it closes you off, because if you're in a sexual relationship with somebody in that intimate a relationship, that's priority in your life and you cannot simultaneously in your life be open to a whole lot of people, that's the challenge of celibacy.
But not to live the shriveled up life where you're not close to anybody.
Hmm. So you you met a priest when you were in your 20s and you were at the time studying together and he fell in love with you and I think you fell in love with him. But of course, you wanted to observe the vow of chastity. And you're right that this relationship was an example of what was being called the third way. Would you describe it the third way was sure, and if you remember my description, that we would live our vows, but we would be close as man and woman as friends.
And then I say in the book, if you think that sounds tricky and confusing, that's because it is.
So, of course, when sister said freedom and peace and you'd be going away to study, as happened with me when I went to London, Ontario, it was a school of religious education. And you had priests and nuns, a few laypeople going to school together. And that's how I met Williams, not his real name. I want to protect him. He has died and I want to make sure that I protected him in every way that and he was so attractive.
He was handsome. He had a great mind, and we were immediately drawn to each other.
But then we are going over to Dennis's house, who had a piano and there was beer and wine and hard liquor. And so we're sipping our drinks and we're singing songs around the piano. And some of them were love songs like Somewhere My Love. There will be songs to sing the theme from Chicago, which had come out around that time. And the next thing you know, you're looking at each other and you going, Oh, my God. And that attraction was there, the sexual attraction, you couldn't help it.
So then there's that discernment again in prayer. What's going on here? What's going on here?
So I was I knew my soul and I knew that I was not on a path that I'm a fall in love with somebody and marry them. I was clear about that. I wanted to be able to live a lifestyle that I could be wide in. The number of people are the way I could reach out to people in love and service. That is a gift of the sisterhood, by the way, that you are free after Vatican two to do work you want to do, and you can follow your deepest desires and your gifts as a sell.
Well, a problem in the relationship, too, was that he started drinking a lot too much and that he found that very troubling. And you broke off the relationship. Do you think he wanted to marry you and leave the priesthood and have you leave?
Absolutely. Oh, that was clear, huh? And especially when we're together and he'd be coming on strong to me. I mean, sometimes, thank God I was physically fit. I mean, when he was drinking, it was it was not pleasant at all.
Then he'd be so apologetic. And I didn't know how alcohol work, but he was so apologetic and he'd say it.
He would call me Lou. My name is Louis Augustan. We dropped all the men's names after Vatican two became our baptismal name ourselves.
Oh, look, I'm so sorry. You know, I want you to be free to be who you want to be. And then he'd be so contrite that I thought it would never happen again. I did know how alcohol worked. I also began to see how terribly lonely he was in the priesthood. It is one of my concerns for Priest that so many of them are lonely because they don't have the same kind of community.
So you eventually broke off your relationship with Will because he wanted to get married? You did not. He wanted to have a sexual relationship. You wanted to keep your vow of celibacy. So you broke it off and eventually became friends.
I'm wondering if you want to say eventually became friends. I mean, you started your relationship on different terms.
Absolutely. Yeah. I'm wondering if you think it was very helpful to you as a nun to have experienced that relationship with Will because it taught you something about relationships, something you could bring into the world and understand the world around you better, the world that you are serving.
Absolutely. And I would tell you what Will gave me the relationship was great confidence in myself as a woman and as being attractive. And I relate to men all over the place now that I'm doing my work. I love the company have been and Will taught me that.
Sister Helen Prejean speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her latest memoir, River of Fire, will be published in paperback this month. After a break, we'll continue their conversation and I'll review the new HBO miniseries Lovecraft Country, whose production team includes Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. I'm David Bianculli and this is Fresh Air.
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This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Back with more of Terry's interview from last year with Sister Helen Prejean. Her latest spiritual memoir, A River of Fire, comes out this month in paperback. One of Sister Helen's earlier memoirs was titled Dead Man Walking and was about her work with death row inmates and her activism opposing the death penalty. That book was adapted into a 1995 film of the same name for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar portraying Sister Helen River of Fire came out in 2019, the same year Attorney General William Barr announced the resumption of federal executions after a 17 year moratorium last month.
Three federal inmates were executed within one week. Sister Helen's opposition to capital punishment was the result of a long process, which she describes in her latest memoir, her spiritual and activist journey began when Helen Prejean entered the convent in 1957. Joining the congregation of St. Joseph.
You describe a rift in your community between the sisters who wanted to emphasize social justice and the sisters who wanted to focus on spiritual issues. And you started off in the spiritual camp. Why were you in the spiritual camp and not the social justice camp which you eventually crossed over into?
Yeah, there were two main things driving that. One was I was really like in a spiritual cocoon. We had young girls coming over the mother house for retreats. I really did think that the way you change the world is you pray and God takes care of the big problems of the world. And I'd say things like, I'm apolitical, I'm spiritual, I'm above that. And so this is just one rift. These tensions and dialogues and debates were going on about everything.
One of them was what is now that Vatican two has opened doors to the needs and sufferings of the world? What is our mission going to be before it had always been determined and the institutional structure you would teach in the school, you will be in this hospital. Now, we as a community of sisters are beginning to determine it for ourselves. So we had sisters going over to Latin America and beginning to be in Nicaragua and El Salvador in those countries and coming back and say, do you know what's happening to the people?
There are these death squads. They're these dictators. They are these people being disappeared and tortured. They are bringing into our meetings the suffering of what was going on in those countries. And then the journey began. So I came back to New Orleans. I was still at Joseph House at our novitiate, and I would begin to volunteer with the novice's, taken the bus and going into the inner city, to the St. Thomas housing projects and beginning to volunteer at a place called Hope House.
So after you started doing work in the housing project that eventually led to your work on death row with people living on death row, big surprise. And you've done a lot of work on behalf of opposing executions. Last month, Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government will resume the execution of death row inmates. The last federal execution was in 2003.
I imagine this was a pretty discouraging announcement for you, but expected when you have as the president of the United States, a man who took out full page ads in New York newspapers, presuming that the young black boys and Hispanic boys of the Central Park five were guilty of attacking this jogger in Central Park, Ronnie presumes their guilt. They've since been exonerated. He's the president. He's appointed William Barr, the attorney general. And what I've seen with the way the death penalty works in states and the way it works in the federal government, it is up to individual attorney generals or prosecutors whether or not they will prosecute for the death penalty or not.
So these are all people that have received the death sentence. So what they want to do is they want to hasten their executions. But the arbitrariness in which the federal system is applied is the same as a state. And when you look at the people that have been executed in the federal system, you see that every one of them was poor and many of them were minorities, even more so than in the state system. In the state system, where you see race is then the victim, that it's when you kill white people overwhelmingly, that's when you get the death penalty.
But the same arbitrariness and capriciousness, like right now we're really getting clear about that. They are two percent of prosecutors in different counties in this nation. They all have the same ground rules, two percent that are accountable for over 50 percent of all the people sentenced to death because it's up to individual discretion with the federal death penalty. You could have the prosecutors in Manhattan that never went for the federal death penalty. But a state like Louisiana where you have a federal person who's from the state and has the culture of the Deep South, you saw more federal death penalties being sought.
You've accompanied six people to their execution. You've witnessed those executions. Do you have any sense of what the men whose executions you witnessed experienced in the last minutes of their lives and experienced as they were being executed? Is there anything you could read by watching them about what that must be like and how much how long it takes, how much suffering is involved?
Of course, I'm on the outside of them, but in a way, I'm on the inside of them, too, because I've gotten to know them. Conscious, imaginative. Being sentenced to death cannot help but anticipate and imagine their death, which is coming to predetermined. And they all have the same nightmare, the guard to come in. For me, it's my time and I'm kickin struggling. No, no.
And they trying to drag me out of my cell.
And then I wake up and it's not a dream. I look around myself. I've known and they shared that with me. And the inner anguish in the last moments, I was amazed that they are walking cesta pray that God holds my legs up as I walk. They take steps. I read scripture to them hoping the words, can you hear words when you have this this White Forest fire of these are my last moments on Earth. Now I'm going through this door.
Now they're strapping me in. All I knew was I couldn't let them die alone.
So you tried to be within eye contact of the men who you've accomplished on their execution? Yes. And the prison guards enable you to be in a position where the man being executed can see you.
Well, it varies in Louisiana. You're there with the witnesses. If you see Susan Sarandon in the movie, I mean, we worked on every line and scene of this movie and you see her putting her hand out toward him so she could stand out the witnesses.
He could see where I was. That's just what happened. And he looked at me and I knew then he had seen my face. He knew I was there. One person in that crowd of people that believed in his dignity and did not want to see him die, that love there at the end. But like when I was with Joseph Odell in Virginia, they actually let me come in and be with him. He was strapped down waiting for the lethal injection.
He let me be there with him and put my hand on his shoulder and pray with him. The warden said, look, don't make the prayer too long, OK? We need this to be over.
It's so unbelievable what's happening. You can't take it in.
I've been integrating it all these years. I don't know that I have it yet that that happened.
So when you're with somebody as they're being executed or when you're in the place for witnesses, what are you trying to communicate with them?
Like after the point where you there can actually hear you reading the scripture?
All the words have been spoken. Yeah. In my faithfulness to them and in visiting them, they know my love and care for them and that I believe in their dignity. It's all presence then. It's just pure presence. Like when you're at the death of anyone, you're not making long speeches. It's there's no nothing to say. You look at my face, I'll be the face of Christ for you. It's pure presence and that's what it is.
Let me reintroduce you here.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Sister Helen Prejean, and she's written a new spiritual memoir that's called River of Fire. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is Fresh Air. Black voters.
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Really understand the world if women aren't their equals. And that applies to nuns and priests.
And you also write about how you can preach in Protestant churches, but not in your own. You can give sermons and Protestant churches against the death penalty. And even though the Pope opposes the death penalty, you can't give the same sermon in your own Catholic Church.
Women can't preach. In the Catholic Church, women cannot read. The gospel at Mass. A young little pimply teenager who happens to be a boy could read the gospel. He got to be male and see the million ways it plays out that women somehow cannot fully image Christ. It was what I said in the letter was that women need to be in on those decision making councils when policies are being decided in the church, because the presence of women, our consciousness, our empathy, what we bring to the table is really important for the dialogue.
And if men in the church are always only talking to other men at the top decision making levels, and that's the Curia in Rome, that's the bishops when they meet, it's always all males. And that if we don't have full dialogue with women represented, that's the fullness of human beings. We are never going to be able to embody what the gospel of Jesus is about.
Pope Francis recently affirmed that one thing that was not going to change was women being restricted from becoming priests.
Yes, he has said that he has made statements on that.
So you still think it's going to change eventually, but not just because that life moves and the spirit in the church.
Look how long it took. Six hundred years to change the teaching of the Catholic Church on the death penalty to unequivocal opposition. So women, it's going to change because it has to because it's so against the gospel of Jesus to simply say because someone is a man or a woman, one can fully represent Christ and so represent him at the altar and the other one can't.
At the end of your book, you write that you are now 80. Your parents died when they were 80. Want your older sister is dead and you write Death seems to be such a crapshoot either it's everything union in love with all that is or it's nothing.
Disintegration into a puny pile of chemicals. How has your understanding of death changed in all the years that you've been a nun?
Well, in watching people actually go to their death, I've seen have they summon their courage to make the walk? They're very afraid, but they they do it. They do it. I've watched Mama, Daddy, Mary, and it's Mary Ann and I really close. And and in fact, after Mary Ann died, your sister, see? Yeah. My sister, she was always a brave one, like when we were doing tomboy things like jumping from a limb to catch a rope swing.
I'm the last one on the branch and she's going to jump, don't be such a sissy.
So the words that came up inside me after she had died because she was gone and I couldn't hear her voice physically. But since death comes for everybody, I did it. It's going to happen to you too. Don't be a sissy. I had what it took. God brought me through it. And you can you'll have what you need to and it strengthens me.
Do you believe in a literal heaven and hell? What do you mean by literal? That there actually is a heaven and that some people would be dispatched to heaven and some people will be scorched eternally in hell?
I do not believe that if we say God is a loving and merciful God, that God puts people in this frying pan and zaps them in fire for all eternity, plunges them into an eternal pain that. What kind of God is that? It's mystery, of course, but I know that it cannot be the imposition of eternal pain. At least it doesn't with anything I know about the God, the above that Jesus taught us and that God is merciful, what does it mean to say God's merciful?
You can keep people in a frying pan in hell for all eternity. Heaven, a little imagination here. What if heaven? What if Mary Ann is right here by my side, but I can't see her mom and daddy all those. It's called the communion of Saints in the Catholic Church.
Not that it's a literal place, of course, but what if they have crossed over a threshold in which they have moved into a way of being that is somehow connected in love with everything? And maybe that is the heart of what it all means.
Are there any parts of life that you regret having missed out on because of the vows that you took when you became an. And the life that you've dedicated yourself to, it's been such a rich life in so many ways, but there are some things that you actually were pledged to deny yourself.
You know, I was such an impetuous, spontaneous person, I guess, in a way immature, not rounded out in relationships like with men. And so it's been a slow process to awaken to the deepest dimension of the gospel, to do justice, to be in solidarity with poor people. So I have a feeling being in that kind of cocoon of protection and a limited environment in which I lived and moved and had my being might have been good for me.
I think I did it exactly as I should have done it. I don't regret anything. Sister Helen Prejean, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much, Terry.
I love hearing that voice. Come on the radio. It's been a joy. Thank you so much for getting this book out, because it's really important we get religion right.
Because, God, you know, religion is used in so many ways to hurt people, especially Christianity.
Do you feel like you're seeing that right now? I'll give one example. Jeff Sessions before him, Justice Scalia quoting Romans 13, that if anything, is the law in the United States, we obey civil authority because it has the authority of God. And Justice Scalia quoted that to justify the death penalty. And Jeff Sessions just quoted that because it's the law for people to enter the country illegally so you can separate children from their parents. And he brought in divine authority to sanction it.
And that is really, really harmful.
It is so opposite to the compassion and mercy and love that Jesus taught us that it just I can't tell you what it does to see that happening over and over again by these people who claimed Christianity and then quote, even the words of Jesus sometimes to hurt people, to disrespect them and to claim that the suffering we're causing is separating children from their parents is really God's will because it's legal.
And I quote Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk that still make retreat with the Trappist monks at Gethsemani, who said when the world ends, it'll be legal.
Well, Sister Helen, thank you so much. Thank you, Terry.
Sister Helen Prejean speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. Sister Helen's latest memoir, River of Fire, comes out in paperback this month. After a break, I review Lovecraft Country, a new HBO miniseries inspired by an aggressively reworking the stories and ideas of writer H.P. Lovecraft. This is fresh air.
Back in the day, as Netflix began to gain popularity, its rival Blockbuster was looking for an edge. At one point, the investors were asking for Blockbuster to sell jeans in the store.
Yeah, just imagine these like older investors being like, you know what the kids want? They want jeans.
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Some of the most daring and relevant TV dramas of the past year. Shows that have a lot to say about both racism and sexism have come from the genre broadly described as science fiction. The Watchmen on HBO. Penny Dreadful City of Angels on Showtime and now coming Sunday from HBO is Lovecraft Country, a miniseries that's really tricky to describe, which in this case is a compliment.
Like Matt Ruffs Lovecraft Country novel on which this HBO 10 part drama is based, the story is drawn from some of the concepts and creatures from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote about a century ago.
His stories featured sorcerers and monsters, aliens and alternate universes and in the past have inspired such cult films as The Dunwich, Horror, Reanimator and From Beyond the Magic.
And the Monsters are part of Lovecraft country as well. But what Matt Ruffed does in his novel and showrunner and writer Misha Green does even more in her TV adaptation is Sievert Lovecraft's fiction and deepen it by framing it all from a bold new perspective.
Lovecraft's views and some of his story's themes were overtly racist. But Lovecraft country upends all that by presenting a narrative in which the heroes are African-American.
The setting is the racially divided 1950s, and each episode of the miniseries seems to have its own tone.
HBO made only half of Lovecraft country available for preview, but so far I really love its mixture of consistency and surprises. Episodes have reminded me of such movies as Alien Poltergeist and Indiana Jones, while also telling their own unfolding mystery story.
Two of the other executive producers of Lovecraft country are Jordan Peele of Get Out and JJ Abrams of Lost, both of whom have done exciting and often thoughtful work in the genre of fantasy.
Their support has lent prominence to HBO's Lovecraft country, but it's Misha Green who provides much of the magic here. She not only writes most episodes, but has improved upon the novel by deepening and altering both the characters and the narrative in the opening episode, three of the main characters are driving east from Chicago when they stop for a moment in a secluded stretch of tree lined road.
The trio consists of Atticus, a young Korean War veteran played by Jonathan Majors, his childhood friend Leticia played by Jurnee Smollett, and his uncle George, played by Courtney B. Vance. There may be danger lurking in those woods, but a different type of danger presents itself.
When a sheriff played by Jamie Harris drives up and begins asking questions, the uncle responds as politely as possible, but the tension quickly escalates.
Who are you? George Freeman, sir. This is my nephew Atticus, and his friend, the teacher where you are from Chicago, sir. You're a long way from home. Oh, we're just passing through, taking the bathroom breaks.
There is all of you all know the sun downtown. Yes, sir, we do. What is the sundown county if I have found you person in my words, like animals after dark, it would have been my sworn duty to hang every single one of you from the tree. It's not sundown yet. So instead of just seven and nine today and seven minutes from now, then we'll be out of the county in six. Now, that's impossible. Heading south on the road, you're currently out unless you were to speak.
And if you were to speed, I'd have to pull you over. Then we'll head north. That my work. Why don't you give it a try? We will, sir.
Is it legal to make a U-turn, aren't you, with marijuana that ordinarily I would consider a U-turn violation, but if you ask me real nice, I might just let it go.
It's not revealing too much or overstating things to say that the real monsters in Lovecraft country, the scariest ones, aren't the flesh eating creatures borrowed from Lovecraft's fiction.
They're the authority figures, the bigots, the people who are in power and willing to use it.
The clearly fictional monsters are almost a relief, but they too are scary, as are the ghosts, the wizards and the other supernatural elements.
Even as it raises tension as often as it raises important issues. This miniseries is a lot of fun to watch.
Part of that comes from the visual flair with obvious nods to famous films and sequences, and part comes from it's intentionally anachronistic use of music when the same soundtrack can find ways to make great use of a righteous rant by spoken word poet Gil Scott Heron and the moving on up theme from The Jeffersons, I'm all in yet.
What makes Lovecraft country work the most in this HBO version is its humanity.
The relationships between the characters are key friends turning to lovers, fathers and sons trying to reconnect, sisters being both supportive and competitive.
Jurnee Smollett, who starred in Meesha Green slavery era TV drama Underground, is great here as Leticia, an action hero every bit as dynamic and crucial to the story as Jonathan Majors, as Atticus.
There's also a large supporting cast, including Michael Kenneth Williams from The Wire and Abby Lee. They're given lots to do and do it very well indeed. Lovecraft Country. The book took Lovecraft's ideas, played with them and played against them, emerging with something better and more meaningful.
The HBO series does that to the book as well. It's got a lot to say and the way it says it makes for one wild ride.
On Monday's show, a gripping inside look at the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration for two years, filmmaker Shaul Schwarz and Christina Kodjo had unprecedented access to immigration enforcement officers and the immigrants they detained. The result is the six part series Immigration Nation, now available on Netflix. Hope you can join us. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Charlie Caia, an additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld.
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.