Lovecraft Country (Courtesy of Eli Joshua Ade/HBO)
Actor Jonathan Majors recalls his mother telling him, when he was a child, to always come home before the street lights came on.
But it wasn’t until he was filming “Lovecraft Country” that he realized that was not because “my mother was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my way home in the dark,” he says. “It was the fact that she grew up in Texas and a sundown town was a real thing and if you were not home by the time those street lights came up, you were in trouble.”
Working on the first season of the HBO drama that mixed elements of horror, supernatural mysticism and science fiction on the backdrop of historical events gave him fresh perspective on the Black experience in America.
In addition to Jim Crow laws, Majors saw the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in a new light after working with his fellow actors Courtney B. Vance and Michael K. Williams on scenes set during that time period.
“They broke it down: ‘It wasn’t a riot; it was a massacre,’” Majors says. That is “the proper way of referencing that moment in history as Black people and in our history as Americans. To then walk through that space with that idea in mind [of], ‘Oh all these people are not going to lose their lives because they’re acting crazy, they’re going to lose their lives because people are going to come in and it’s going to be a brief, territorial genocide,’ that completely cracked something open in me. Changing the narrative for myself changes how you move through the world, changes how you move through the space.”
The way “Lovecraft Country,” which was created and is run by Misha Green, affected its lead actor is indicative of how any strong dramatization of real historical events should impact those who engage with the material, even if liberties are taken to tweak some of the details — or in the case of “Lovecraft Country,” showcase said events through such other-worldly elements as time travel. For many of today’s drama series that are spotlighting specific defining moments in time, the key to success lies in balancing a high level of emotion with educational elements.
Late last year, just two weeks after Netflix launched the fourth season of “The Crown,” the U.K.’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden called on the streamer to put a disclaimer at the start of episodes, lest younger viewers mistake fiction for fact because they might not have any personal memory of the events depicted within the show. But because “The Crown” is a drama series, not a documentary, recreating specific events — even when they are globally iconic ones such as the wedding of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) — are not what matters most to the show. It is the internal struggles of and interpersonal dynamics between the members of the British royal family that keep the audience binge-watching.
Similarly, Netflix’s “Selena” and “Bridgerton” care more about the inner workings of characters’ relationships than simply reshooting the late singer-songwriter’s music videos or television performances or recreating specific galas that only the 1% of the time attended, respectively. (Although, both shows do the latter sporadically as well.)
Unlike “The Crown,” on which no members of the royal family consult, “Selena” counts the real Abraham Quintanilla Jr. and Suzette Quintanilla among its executive producers.
“When you become a legend, there’s so much rumor. So, for us it was really important to get the true story and to really understand the emotions of what it took and the sacrifice, why they made their choices,” says “Selena” executive producer Jaime Dávila.
Knowing that everyone’s truth is slightly skewed by his or her individual point of view, Dávila says the “Selena” writers’ room worked mostly with Suzette Quintanilla on the story. But they also did other interviews with family and band members, in addition to archival research, in order to capture the spirit of the 1970s to 1990s for everyone working so hard to make this family band and the young girl at its center both a successful business and rising star.
For “Bridgerton,” which is based on Julia Quinn’s first novel in her book series of the same name and set during a social season in Regency England, showrunner Chris Van Dusen worked with historians such as Dr. Hannah Greig to properly represent many period details.
“For the dining scenes,” for example, he notes, “there were so many rules I had to learn about: how people sit at the dinner table and how they eat, how they hold their silverware, how the footmen act, how they come in at certain points and how they leave when someone wants a new drink.”
But because he wanted to create an “aspirational” vibe to the show, from the love story between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), to the actual visuals, he opted to marry history with fantasy in many areas, such as production and costume design.
The reality of the time period, he points out, was that “streets would not be clean and the costumes would be ruined,” but “when I watched the show, I wanted to be able to think, ‘I want to live in that world.’”
Additionally, it was important to him to use the hindsight he has writing this series more than two centuries after the real period to deliver “really modern commentary about how, in the last 200 years, everything has changed but nothing changed.”
David Weil, who created Amazon Prime Video’s “Hunters,” which centers on the titular group of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York also preferred to lean into thematic parallels and a specific tone rather than perfectly-accurately depicting recent history. The first season follows the group on a high-octane, slightly wish-fulfilling adventure as they work to take down Nazi war criminals conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the U.S. It culminates in the reveals that the leader of this group (played by Al Pacino) is a former Nazi himself and that Adolf Hitler is still alive and well, more than three decades after he killed himself in reality.
In the face of so much present-day racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, Weil previously told Variety, the show became a quest to seek vigilante justice and ask the audience to think about what they would do if facing such hatred head-on.
Stirring up such strong feelings in the audience is also essential to push through a stuffy time and make them want to invest in a drama season over season.
Talking of “Selena,” Davila says: “The whole goal was to give you a positive portrayal of a Mexican-American family [and] to showcase why she had the impact she had. Part 1 is, ‘How do you achieve that dream?’ and Part 2, which we’ll see later is, ‘Once you’ve achieved that dream, how do you keep it going?’ At the end of the day I want to make sure that people are entertained by this story, and so are some moments in the show not 100% accurate? Yeah, they’re not. But I think what is 100% accurate is the emotion. That is the truth I wanted.”
Variety's Danielle Turchiano contributed to this post.