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“Them” Is A Troubling Technicolor Tour of Black Terror

Friday, April 9, 2021 | Reviews

By CAROLYN MAURICETTE

Starring Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Directed by Nelson Cragg, Craig William MacNeill, Ti West, and more
Written by Little Marvin and Dominic Orlando
Amazon Studios

The Great Migration from 1916-1970 was a movement of African-Americans from the South to the North, Midwest and West in search of better lives thousands of miles away from Jim Crow. In Amazon Prime’s new series, THEM, helmed by writer and producer Little Marvin, dreams of better opportunities and life in the suburbs for a black family becomes a technicolor nightmare in 1950s America.

Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), his wife Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) and their two daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), move to a beautiful neighbourhood in Compton, California, escaping the South and the troubles they endured there. Henry has just landed a new job as an engineer and bought his family a new house. They are the first Black people to live on their new street lined with manicured lawns and pastel-coloured cars, but it’s not the welcome wagon that greets them. Instead, their white neighbours, championed by the cruel Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), treat the Emorys to constant scrutiny, threats and terror. It doesn’t stop there, either. Supernatural threats also haunt the family, and over ten episodes, we see them descend into madness and chaos as they deal with grief, oppression and racism.

Livia ‘Lucky’ Emory (Deborah Ayorinde), Gracie Jean Emory (Melody Hurd), Ruby Lee Emory (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) in THEM. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Writer and professor Tananarive Due said it best in the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), “Black history is Black horror,” but when you take that history and distill all Black trauma into a series and label it “horror,” it becomes problematic. Keeping that in mind, THEM is a series for people who aren’t Black to immerse themselves in a legacy of racism and brutality and for this Black critic, it’s just as draining as watching a slave narrative. The supernatural elements are also a bit muddled and seem like an add-on instead of a storytelling theme, and ten episodes might be overkill to get to the point. Little Marvin does, however, succeed in telling a story of the well-known city of Compton as it once was: an enclave of white suburban life with the legislated exclusion of Black people and people of colour.

The production design is gorgeous, with bright colours, impeccable costuming, and mid-century sets. THEM also boasts a solid indie horror pedigree with episodes directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil), Craig William MacNeill (The Boy) plus up-and-coming director Janicza Bravo (Zola), who shows off plenty of talent behind the camera. The performances are brilliant, especially Wright Joseph (who showed her horror acting chops in Jordan Peele’s US) and Hurd. For such young performers to endure emotionally trying subject matter is a feat in itself, and the frustration Ayorinde and Thomas convey touched me deeply. You’ll also see some familiar faces like Pat Healey (Cheap Thrills), Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), and Anika Noni Rose (Assassination Nation) rounding out the cast. Pill, as the heartless antagonist, Betty is also incredible, and her campaign to destroy the Emorys is ruthless. I did find it difficult to reconcile her backstory, however. As a critic, the sympathetic view of antagonists and villains is interesting, but as a Black person, I don’t care what trials and tribulations racists go through, especially when Betty is so terrible.

Alison Pill (Betty Wendell) in THEM. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

While a visual triumph, THEM will be a tough watch for many with its relentless approach to Black trauma through horror. The tone of THEM isn’t one of discovery, adventure, or an uplifting depiction of the Black struggle. It relentlessly revisits the grief of the present and the past – a Kubrickian eye-clamp exposure therapy of the fears Black people experience daily.

THEM is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Carolyn Mauricette