Amazon's 10-part series Them takes cue from Jordan Peele, uses horror genre tropes as allegory for racism in the US

Them is likely to educate many viewers on an ugly relic of American history that is not widely acknowledged: racially restrictive housing covenants.

The New York Times April 09, 2021 11:56:09 IST
Amazon's 10-part series Them takes cue from Jordan Peele, uses horror genre tropes as allegory for racism in the US

Still from Them

Want to hear a scary story? Here is one: A family reckoning with a senseless, pervasive horror flees home to what they hope will be a place of safety and prosperity, only to find themselves pursued by that same demented presence.

Evil forces gather — their new home is haunted too. Bloody visions terrorise them day and night. The dog is poisoned. It is only a matter of time before the bodies start mounting.

But in the 10-part Amazon series Them, as in any good horror story, there is a twist: The victims are simply a middle-class Black family in the 1950s, seeking a better life in a Los Angeles suburb; the senseless horror is the racism of their white neighbours, who want them out. As the situation devolves, certain terrifying events may be supernatural, or they may be psychological.

And yet, as the series asks: Does that distinction matter when the danger is ever-present?

“As the sinister elements outside the home ratchet up, that obviously allows for the cracks and fissures within each of them to be infiltrated by something malevolent,” the series creator, Little Marvin, said of the Black family at the center of Them. “But that malevolent thing, as sure as there is a supernatural component to our story, is deeply rooted in the emotional and psychological lives of these characters.”

It must get hard to believe your own eyes when your senses are being shocked over and over by cruelty, I said.

“Welcome to being Black,” Little Marvin replied.

Welcome, also, to the legacy of codified racism in the US, which provided Little Marvin with a conceptual starting point for Them.

Like the Jordan Peele film Get Out or the HBO hit from last summer Lovecraft Country, Them, which counts Lena Waithe as an executive producer, uses horror genre conventions as allegorical octane for racist machinery that is all too real.

And as Watchmen did for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the show is likely to educate many viewers on an ugly relic of American history that is not widely acknowledged: racially restrictive housing covenants.

If real estate legalese does not sound like fodder for an edge-of-your-seat horror story, consider the implications. Just as government redlining helped create and reinforce segregation by determining who was eligible for mortgages, racial covenants did the same by restricting who was allowed to buy a property at all, finances be damned. A deed might explicitly forbid all owners, current and future, from selling the home to anyone of African or Asian descent. Many older deeds still bear such language.

“Any house that was built between 1938 and 1948, in a subdivision, I would be surprised for it not to have racial restrictions in them,” said Carol M Rose, a professor emeritus at Yale Law School who has studied racial covenants extensively. Those restrictions, Rose explained, which first appeared in the late 19th century, exploded in the early 20th century as farmlands were subdivided for large swaths of new housing.

Racial covenants were notoriously common around Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago — the Midwest did not mandate separate drinking fountains, but segregation and violence were just as real. And California was no different. A Supreme Court decision in 1948, Shelley v Kraemer, made racial covenants no longer enforceable, creating opportunities for nonwhite families in places like Compton, California, where Them is set.

Amazons 10part series Them takes cue from Jordan Peele uses horror genre tropes as allegory for racism in the US

Still from Them

Deprived of a legal means of keeping their neighbourhoods white, some racists resorted to extralegal methods, which is where the horror really begins. Sometimes the method was vandalism. Others, a Molotov cocktail.

“California is part of the story because people think that California is this sort of easy, breezy racial space, and no, it’s terrible,” said Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University who wrote Hate Thy Neighbor, a book about the violence faced by people in integrating neighborhoods. “It’s terrible for precisely the reasons that this series explores. The methods used in the Midwest were also used in California.”

The Emory family of Them flees the South as part of the Great Migration, in which, from 1916 to to 1970, an estimated 6 million Black people left the region for cities of the North and West. Like them, the Emorys seek economic opportunity; the father, Henry (Ashley Thomas), is a college-educated engineer and World War II veteran, and he has relatives in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. When he lands a job out West, the family hits the road.

But like so many other Black families of the time, they are also fleeing racial terrorism, which has left a jagged scar on the family’s collective psyche. We learn in the pilot that Henry and his wife, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), once had a baby boy, but only their two daughters (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd) join the long drive from North Carolina. The family’s love is binding, but it soon becomes clear that their shared trauma has the potential to tear them apart.

Thomas said one of the greatest strengths of the series was its focus on the family. “You care about the Emorys,” he said on set one night early in 2020, six weeks before COVID-19 shut down production for about five months. “I think it puts a magnifying glass on family life.” “It just so happens,” he added, “that they’re in the ’50s, and there are threats both supernatural and real at their necks.”

On the surface, the family’s new home in East Compton is a middle-class Eden of pastel bungalows and immaculate lawns. In order to recapture its uncanny 1950s perfection, the production team created a fake neighbourhood block on an outdoor lot in Pomona, just east of Los Angeles. By the time the Emorys arrive in 1953, only a few decades have passed since Compton was a small farming community, and everything still feels sparkling new — all fresh paint and right angles.

It is also extremely white. When the Emorys break the colour barrier on their block, their new neighbours panic: West Compton has already begun to see an influx of Black families; East Compton could be next.

As the white neighbours’ hostility and violence intensify, the boundary between what is real and supernatural begins to break down.

“They come to California thinking that it’s going to be this safe haven — we can eat at the counter; we can do this; we can be free,” said Ayorinde, whose character’s flawless red lipstick and bob hairstyle obscure an often roiling interior. “And it turns out to be just like, if not worse than, where they just came from.”

Much of the racist aggression is led by the Emorys’ neighbour Betty, who has a traumatic past of her own. Alison Pill, who plays Betty, described her character as “a proto-Karen,” who seeks safety in a “white supremacist delusion.”

“I think it’s very easy to see how white women, including myself, come to be how they are — where there is proximity to power but the feeling of no actual power,” Pill said. “And unacknowledged trauma for everybody has sort of led the way in so much racism, bigotry — in any way that we sort of quantify ourselves.”

Little Marvin’s father’s family moved from Alabama to Massachusetts during the Great Migration, and his mother is Indian; creating a Black family who felt like outsiders in their own home was deeply personal for him. Them is his first TV series. He worked in marketing until he quit his job a few years ago, he said, because “I always wanted to make television.”

Waithe, who read Little Marvin’s script before she met him, was won over by the specific, passionate perspective he brought to a story with universal relevance. “His voice is so directly connected to who he is as a person — bold, honest, and a dark humour that sneaks up on you,” she wrote in an email. “He forces the audience to confront our past because we’ve yet to escape it.”

Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television, which co-produced the series, agreed, and Amazon signed an overall deal in 2019 with Little Marvin, which included greenlighting the first two seasons of Them, an anthology series. (The focus of Season 2 has not been announced.)

Amazons 10part series Them takes cue from Jordan Peele uses horror genre tropes as allegory for racism in the US

Still from Them

The world was, in many respects, very different when Little Marvin and I met in January 2020, but the main topic of that conversation — the racial history of Southern California — is, if anything, only more timely now. At an outdoor cafe in Silver Lake, he talked about Black homes that were torched in the postwar era, about the racial epithet posted on Nat King Cole’s lawn. He discussed the importance of using unorthodox instruments, like genre horror, to make a tale about race resonate.

“Sometimes these stories tend to be trapped in amber,” he said. More conventional segregation-era stories were often “very staid,” he added, “and you don’t get a sense of what it would mean to actually feel the impact.” Horror, he hoped, would help crack open that amber.

Weeks later, the coronavirus halted filming on Them, just one and a half episodes shy of completion. Still, there was plenty to edit, and Marvin got to work. Then in May, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking global outrage after video emerged of a white officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.

Floyd’s killing, and the others since, and the protests that raged through the summer did not change anything about Marvin’s approach to the material as his team completed production, he said in a video call last month. There were essential truths underpinning the events of last summer that he had been living with his whole life.

“But it absolutely validated the need for it,” he said about completing the series. “I started writing it summers back, and during a time where every morning I was waking up and grabbing my phone, and seeing Black folks terrorised by the police,” he said. “So the fact that we would find ourselves in this place years later, to me, it just says that the journey was valid, and that what we’re exploring is necessary.”

Austin Considine c.2021 The New York Times Company

Them is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

All images from YouTube.

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