Who Is Them For? Because It’s Not Us.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Newly released Amazon Prime original series Them claims to explore the terrifyingly evil nature of American anti-Blackness through a historical lens, focusing on the sociopolitically tumultuous period of The Second Migration. At first glance, the project appears to be a story about Black people, for Black people. But as the plot unfolds, the intended audience becomes less clear. Can a narrative set on triggering its target audience with racial trauma actually be written with us in mind?
I won't to lie to you; when I first learned about the premise of Them, I did like Issa Rae, and heaved a deep, heavy, Negro spiritual sigh. As someone who is both Black and frightened by many, many things, the idea of yet another horror project focusing on one of the most frighteningly ubiquitous things of all — anti-Blackness — wasn't exactly thrilling to me. Still, the Black horror canon is full of titles that are as culturally significant as they are terrifying; Candyman positioned slavery as the original sin that led to the birth of a legendary monster, and Get Out artfully explored the extreme consequences of fetishisation and cultural appropriation. Nightmare fuel, but make it astute and thought-provoking.
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Them attempts to leave a similar impact in its first installment, zeroing in on a harrowing period of history that saw Black southerners moving North and West, searching for economic opportunity and the chance to escape systemic racism. Thinking that they've found their way out, the Emory family makes the big move from the deep south to 1950s Los Angeles, but surprise, surprise: racists are everywhere, even in sunny and "liberal" California. The all-white neighbourhood of East Compton they relocate to doesn't take kindly to the new residents, resorting to especially heinous levels of harassment and torture to force them out. What makes the 10-day ordeal even more painful is that it follows an especially agonising past; the Emorys fled North Carolina after their youngest child was brutally murdered, and matriarch Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) was raped in a diabolical racist attack.

Rather than investing in the trajectory of the story, we're thrown into a state of emotional distress that renders the show indigestible. It actually hurts to watch.

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We know how evil racism is — we've lived it, after all — but Them takes that torture to the extreme, as if relishing in the brutality against this Black family. Scene after scene, we see the Emorys suffering with no respite, battling both natural and supernatural forces put in place solely to torment them. It's technically historically accurate and true to the gore expected of the horror genre, but this level of endless, senseless violence against Black people is almost an impossible pill to swallow. And unlike so many of the other Black horror stories that we've loved and rewatched (even through our fingers), our protagonists don't even clearly come on the other side victorious. An oddly-placed soundtrack of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is meant to be the only balm to soothe our wounded psyches after 10 long episodes of giving Black people hell.
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On one hand, it's easy to see where creator Little Marvin may have been trying to go with the twisted plot of the Amazon project. More than ever, the world is having to confront the real-life consequences of anti-Blackness and this country's deep-rooted disdain for Black life and well-being.
"I really wanted to explore that terror and why it exists and also explore the American Dream, which I think a lot of us have been thinking about whether it’s Black folks or immigrant folks or whatever folks right now," Little Marvin explained in a conversation with Essence. "There’s been a history of disenfranchisement in this country, specifically around real estate. Interrogating the rot beneath that suburban dream was really the beginning of the journey."
Unfortunately, the level of harm that is repeatedly done to the main characters is so extreme that it inadvertently takes away from the storyline. Rather than investing in the trajectory of the story, we're thrown into a state of emotional distress that renders the show indigestible. It actually hurts to watch.
Them's preoccupation with depicting Black suffering begs an important question: Who exactly is this show for? It doesn't seem particularly interested in generating fear, so it might not satisfy the true horror fans. And after the year (decade, century, millennia, eternity) we've had, Black people are more than a little weary of trauma porn on our screens — where are the rom-coms, the superhero blockbusters, the coming-of-age stories, the vampire epics? The particular series feels loaded with pain and torment, but to what end? What's the point of all of this besides Black suffering?
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Some might argue that stories like this have a place in the zeitgeist because they remind us of the horrors of racism, but I don't know that Black people could ever forget how cruel society has been over time.

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Perhaps the point is that there is no point. Maybe this tale is just that, a story about Black people being crushed under the weight of racism. But if that's the case, then we've seen many of those stories before, and done better with more nuance and care. Even the characters in Roots, the peak Black suffering project, were fully developed people amidst the intense intergenerational racism that they faced, demonstrating the tenacity and strength of Black people generation to generation. Despite the undeniable talent of its cast, Them ends up falling flat because agony is its only motivator; we don't really know anything about the Emorys besides the fact that they are being abused simply because of their race.
Some might argue that stories like this have a place in the zeitgeist because they remind us of the horrors of racism, but I don't know that Black people could ever forget how cruel society has been over time. How could we? It follows us everywhere we go. Someone needs to know just how dangerous it was and still is to be Black in this world by way of projects like this — but I don't think that it's us.
The first season of Them is now available for streaming, only on Amazon Prime.

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