Is Amazon’s ‘Them’ Too Violent for Us to Watch?
When racialized horror gets too deep, some viewers tune in while others tune out
Amazon’s Them (officially Them: Covenant) is out, and let’s just say Twitter has largely not been here for it. Over the weekend, the series trended heavily. Executive producer Lena Waithe was dragged relentlessly as many erroneously pegged her as the series’ creator and writer. (Let’s be real: Some of the venom directed Waithe’s way is residual from her 2019 film, Queen & Slim.) But Them’s creator and main writer is newcomer Little Marvin. Very few biographical details are available on Marvin, but he is an alumnus of corporate America.
To fuel the horror in Them, Little Marvin turned to California, specifically the once lily-white city of Compton, which most people today associate with rapper Eazy-E, the group N.W.A., producer Dr. Dre, and rapper The Game. Also keep in mind that viewers watched the 10-episode anthology series in the wake of a wave of racial horror and supernatural-based shows. In the past two years, HBO alone centered Watchmen around the Tulsa Massacre, and the Peele-produced Lovecraft Country was set during Jim Crow. For both, the imaginary monsters or villains proved to be not nearly as scary as their real White supremacist counterparts. The monsters in Them, by contrast, appear more as ghostly supernatural and perhaps even paranormal.
To understand the backlash against the series, you have to know what it’s really about. Them revolves around a North Carolina family’s move to Compton in the 1950s. The premise seems promising: The family is representative of tens of thousands who moved to the greater Los Angeles area at that time. Prior to World War II, Compton was a whopping 95% White. Real people similar to Them’s fictional World War II vet Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), his wife, and two daughters helped change that. How Henry chooses to change it, however, is questionable. When the family moves to Compton, he is well aware that the paperwork for their house still bears covenant language barring “Negroes” from buying any home in the area. Yet he does not tell his wife, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), who, as revealed in episode five, endured a horrendous racial assault and has lost a child. Because they’re in California and not the South, Henry does not anticipate racial tension and dismisses his wife’s concerns, because he doesn’t feel they’re applicable. That, they both learn, is a huge mistake.
From day one, it’s evident that there isn’t much the neighbors won’t do to prove Henry wrong, especially Betty (Alison Pill), the ringleader. “They always come from someplace worse,” Betty reasons to her fellow terrorizers. “Which means they really want to be here. And if they really want to be here, getting them out won’t be easy. We’ll have to make this place worse.” Unfortunately, Lucky, a former schoolteacher who is now a stay-at-home mom, bears the brunt of her fellow housewives’ aggression to rid their neighborhood of “them” and ultimately pays a huge price, especially with her mental health.
Worse comes in various stages of racial terror, real and imagined. In addition to being terrorized at home, Gracie (Melody Hurd), who is barely school-age, is haunted by a scary White woman named Miss Vera, who is invisible to others. Her teenage sister Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph, who appeared in Jordan Peele’s Us) is terrorized by her White classmates, which has a detrimental effect on her, as seen through her “relationship” with a White girl who appears to unlock Ruby’s own sense of racial self-doubt. Lucky, who is coming to terms with a heartbreaking personal tragedy, is pushed to her limits. So is Henry, who is more greatly affected than he anticipated by his racial isolation as the first and only Black engineer at an airplane manufacturer.
Them’s failure doesn’t come in its desire to express these emotions or circumstances, but, rather, in its execution. Despite stellar performances and impressive direction, something just doesn’t add up. Even when the Black family fights back, there is an underlying doubt in their use of self-defense. By employing the stereotypically racist imagery of blackface, along with a Sambo, audiences are left to question if what is happening to Henry and Lucky is really that bad or if they are being triggered by past racial trauma and unfairly bringing that racial baggage to the fore. This is not what Them creator Little Marvin intends, of course, but like some other Black creators, he seems to believe that, with horror especially, inserting “Black” into existing narratives makes for compelling storytelling, when the opposite is true.
“I’ve been a huge fan of [the] 1960s and ’70s horror since I was a kid,” Marvin shared during a virtual roundtable hosted by the African American Film Critics Association. “The Exorcist, The Shining, all of those movies are massive inspirations to me. And the thing about that is folks who look like us never populated the centers of those movies. So, since I was a kid, I was like, ‘One day, it’s gonna be a Black family,’ and stuck to it, and so here we are.”
Unlike Lovecraft Country, to which many will compare this series, Them seems to lack the willingness to create a uniquely Black narrative by experimenting with new ways to tell these stories with Black people and Black trauma at their center. Under Misha Green’s guidance, Lovecraft Country was created with writers Jonathan I. Kidd and Sonya Winton, both of whom are former professors of African American history and serve as co-executive producers. Jordan Peele, whom Twitter credits with launching this latest wave of racially infused horror—ignoring the efforts of Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 film, Tales From the Hood, and others before him—offered a more nuanced approach to that trauma. No such efforts appear to have been made for Them. So, there is very little joy over its 10 episodes. Instead, the Emory family, even the littlest among them, seems to be under constant assault, with no reprieve in sight.
While it is clear that this family loves each other, they rarely get a minute to relax. And that just becomes tiring, especially when the narrative has so much potential. Deborah Ayorinde’s Lucky is no shrinking violet; she is, to borrow from Crime Mob, knucking and bucking and ready to fight back. But here that energy is wasted. Despite their best efforts, both Lucky and Henry are undermined by the narrative itself. Again, there is a subtext that will allow some to question how real the couple’s terror truly is. Yes, Them is the Emory family’s tale, but they aren’t necessarily its heroes, and that is a major problem.
In her article “Racial Trauma in Film: How Viewers Can Address Re-Traumatization,” psychologist Tiarra McKinney, also addressing TV shows, points out, “Researchers have shown that re-traumatization by film and entertainment media can occur when watching depictions of violence, abuse, or neglect, especially if these traumas have been experienced.” The danger of that, she later says, is that “[r]acial trauma has the power to overwhelm the nervous system, similar to other types of trauma.”
For these reasons and more, series like Them can be dangerous to Black people’s mental health. So, watch Them if you choose, but do make provisions to safeguard your mental well-being, because what the Emory family goes through is a lot more than most people can handle or are willing to tolerate, even when it’s fiction.