In “Strange Case,” the fifth episode of HBO’s horror drama Lovecraft Country, a Black woman named Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) has sex with William (Jordan Patrick Smith), a mysterious white man, and wakes up trapped in the body of a white woman. Frantic in the flesh of another, Ruby struggles to make sense of her transformation and ends up roaming the segregated streets of 1950s Chicago, half dressed and frazzled. She’s overwhelmed with a sense of confusion that turns into understanding: The world’s regard for Ruby, as she exists in her white form, confirms that her new reality is more than a mere hallucination. Others see her as white and so she is. Before she can make sense of the metamorphosis she’s undergone, Ruby is undone once more: After a brutal and bloody transformation back into her original body, she discovers her remaking was facilitated by a potion conjured by her white lover. As Ruby soon realizes, William’s magic requires immense bloodshed. Unmitigated freedom comes at a steep price.
The episode, written by showrunner Misha Green and directed by Cheryl Dunye, is more than just that single painful moment. It features several other scenes about magically morbid racial transition. Ruby, who uses the name Hillary when she’s in her white form, becomes increasingly attached to the life white corporeality affords her, particularly her dream job managing Marshall Fields, a slowly (read: hesitantly) integrating department store. Sloughing off Hillary’s skin at the end of each workday takes a psychic toll on Ruby, who must contend with the differences between her true self and the white skin she inhabits.
In her 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” literary theorist Hortense Spillers writes: “Before the ‘body’ there is ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.” While the “body” might describe the physical and political embodiment of liberated subjects, “flesh” refers to the unfree—those made indistinguishable by the desires and impositions of others. In other words, Ruby’s trying to distinguish between her body and her flesh and trespassing the chasm between the two is both triumphant and traumatic for her.
In Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved, Baby Suggs—a former slave and self-proclaimed preacher—consoles her daughter-in-law, Sethe, as she struggles to heal from slavery’s material and psychological aftermath. Musing about the “flesh” of Black life, Baby Suggs remarks: “Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” Upon returning to her true form, Ruby similarly reflects on her existence as a Black woman. “Most days I’m happy to be both, but the world keeps interrupting,” she remarks. “I am sick of being interrupted.”
There’s a long history of such interruptions onscreen. In the 1999 psychological drama Girl, Interrupted, a film adapted from Susanna Kaysen’s eponymous 1993 memoir, a young white woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder—a mental illness characterized by an unstable relationship to one’s sense of self—struggles to survive in a women’s psychiatric hospital in the late ’60s. The cult classic film has been analyzed for its representations of queerness, assault survivors, people with mental disabilities, and the conditions of mental health facilities. And though it doesn’t specifically represent the impact of racial violence on the lives and psyches of Black women, the drama’s insistence on the language of “interruption” is crucial. To assert that one has been “interrupted” invites audiences to further investigate the precarity of the mind. The term asks us to consider our vulnerability to interference.
On Lovecraft Country, the terms of Ruby’s “interruption” are both structural and psychic, an angle that vows to elevate the horror trope of transformation. Where representation is concerned, however, Ruby’s arc isn’t quite an interruption in media tradition, even in its exploration of a Black woman caught between two or more selves. In fact, “Strange Case’s” treatment of Ruby’s mental and physical transformations locates the series in a complicated tradition of representation—an archive of Black girls, interrupted. In the 2010 Canadian film Frankie & Alice, the figure of the psychically fractured Black woman is embodied by Frankie (Halle Berry), a young stripper working in the ’70s who has split personalities and experiences manic episodes as a result of intimate racial trauma—the murder of her newborn born from an illicit interracial affair. Frankie’s alters, a child named Genius and a racist, middle-aged white woman named Alice, take over her body and mind as she struggles to heal and escape the multiple personas born out of her past.
For Frankie, the personas are only a symptom of her problems; splitting from yourself is merely a reaction to a world intent on severance. In Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller Get Out, anti-Blackness and its psychic experiments on Black consciousness play out in a different genre. Though the film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he discovers his white partner’s involvement in a family-run, racially-based body-snatching plot, it’s the Black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who suffers most from the film’s perversion of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “twoness.” The victim of a procedure known as the “coagula”—a lobotomy that permits white people to inhabit Black bodies whilst maintaining psychic authority—Georgina must fight for her mental and bodily autonomy against the white matriarch who possesses her. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Georgina regains control over her body and mind for a brief moment. She elects to use this newfound freedom to warn Chris. Afterward, she’s swiftly overridden by the white woman inside her—tears eerily streaming down her face the only proof of her resistance.
Whether these transformations are facilitated by magic, science, or mental breakdown, none of these women—Frankie, Georgina, Charlotte, or Ruby—finds true freedom in fracture.
Most recently, Netflix’s Ratched, a drama set in a state-run hospital in the ’40s, features yet another Black woman undergoing intense physical and mental transformations as a result of racial violence and white interruption. After surviving a brutal hate crime and experiencing a mental breakdown, Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo) becomes a psychiatric patient at the aforementioned hospital. Diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (known today as dissociative identity disorder), Charlotte transforms first into Ondine, a pretentious, world-renowned violinist, and later a whole host of personas, including a Black Olympic athlete à la Jesse Owens. Exploited by even her doctor, Charlotte’s personas ultimately cannot protect her from either her past or the ways in which others wish to use her in the present. Ruby’s only uninterrupted on Lovecraft Country when she’s trapped in Hillary’s skin and working the job she’d always been denied.
She enjoys her newfound power as Hillary, relishing in her authority by admonishing Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the only visible Black girl on staff, and assaulting her white boss. If, as Morrison once wrote, “The function of freedom is to free someone else,” Ruby’s practice of freedom, particularly her disregard for Tamara, adds up to little more than petty self-gratification. After all, Ruby’s unmitigated freedom as Hillary is facilitated in part by Tamara’s enduring position outside of humanity. Hillary’s freedom, which is predicated on an anti-Black society, can’t even liberate its Black host. Whether these transformations are facilitated by magic, science, or mental breakdown, none of these women—Frankie, Georgina, Charlotte, or Ruby—finds true freedom in fracture. Rather than a “madness” that opens up their worlds, we see only the kind that further encloses them. Perhaps this is why, in the end, the traumatic spectacles of these transformations and multitudes often reveal so little about the interiority of the fictional Black women who experience them.