There have been several films in the last five years that have used horror as a vehicle through which a story is told. These stories center Blackness and are crafted by Black creators. They tackle whiteness as an evil that is just as terrifying as the supernatural and the criminally unstable. In these stories, like Get Out, Us, and Lovecraft Country, among others, the blackness and the larger horror elements are working in tandem somehow. Them, a series created by Little Marvin, who is also the showrunner, posits racism as an additional factor. It becomes fuel for the supernatural elements attacking Black families that try to live in a certain Compton, CA neighborhood in the 1950s.
Fuel for the Supernatural Fire
Them follows a Black upper middle-class family as they move from the deep South to California. This space is supposed to be different. The racial violence that they experienced prior to the move is not something that reasonable city white people do. The family wife Lucky, and husband Henry (Ashley know that the place won’t be feel of white supremacy. They just needed a reprieve from the violence. A minute to breath and dream of the life they would never have.
These past acts of racism quickly resurface in the strangest ways as the family moves into the house on a street full of people who don’t want them there. The neighbors are led by Betty, a white woman who is lacking her husband’s attention and looking to fill it in other ways. Betty (Alison Pill) has a steel trap of a hold on the neighborhood. She is determined that the place stays neat, clean, classy, and white. Together with the odd milkman George (Ryan Kwanten), they maintain the space at all costs.
The Mental Health Pill You Must Swallow
Marvin weaves the mental health themes into the film to show how closely that systemic racism affects Black people, especially Black women. Mothers are explored, with a murderous scene involving Ella Mae Johnson (Anika Noni Rose). The Johnsons were some of the first families that moved to Compton. Lucky’s interaction with her is not a good one, in fact, it is downright horrifying. In the end, Lucky needs this sista in order to get herself and her family to safety.https://youtu.be/YYQ6ooOdDEc
Johnson brings in the institutionalization of Black mothers who are suffering from treatable mental issues. Instead of properly diagnosing Lucky’s PTSD from the sexual and racial violence she suffered at their previous home. Instead, they have labeled her a danger and placed her in a space that is more imprisonment than treatment. We see other Black women who have been treated the same way.
Mental illness is also hinted at with Betty, who is incessant in her harassment of the Emorys. We get a glimpse of Betty’s past, but only enough to know that she is probably deflecting from her own mental health onto the Black family across the street. The racism is fueled by her rage and feelings of inadequacy. It becomes clear that she turns to torturing her Black competition when she is neglected and dismissed by her husband, for example. This look shows how white supremacy was like a drug that white people turn to in order to avoid facing their own issues. Them shows how this goes down through Betty.
Important Lessons in Systemic Racism: Redlining
Redlining is a term that has been around for many decades, but only recently became a part of mainstream, and open, communication. Them elevates the conversation to the level of horror. In one episode, we get to see the “strategy” behind the racist and haunted Compton neighborhood is essentially redlining. You can find out more on the history here. It is a lesson that seems a little out of pocket for the series and some audience members may find the episode distracting. Hang in there for it, though. Juxtapose the microaggression “possession” and other racial violence, the redlining lesson becomes even more sinister—but it is real.
Trigger Warnings, Sirens and Whistles
There is so much happening in Them that the story is tough to discuss without spoilers. Audiences must know that watching is never mandatory. If you don’t watch horror, Them is not the time to start. It is a rough watch full of symbolism and emotion-invoking imagery. This stuff is not something you can ease into.
In addition, if you have triggers for sexual violence or racial violence, Them is definitely not the show for you. Lucky’s story is based on a violent child murder and a terrible sexual assault. It is hard to watch, despite the absences of explicit bodily trauma imagery. The implied deeds are somehow worse because they are full of the emotion and seemed a bit rougher somehow, a bit scarier. Every episode of the show actually has something in it that will set off a trigger. I am urging you not to watch if you have such triggers.
A Social History Exploration in Horror
Them is an exquisite exploration of the many ways that systemic racism permeates American life. The horror themes in the series are the perfect vehicle for teasing these topics out into experiences onscreen that everyone can experience. Them offers so many ways for Blackness to be represented onscreen, while showing our struggle in a way that nonblack people can understand. My hope is that the lessons and messages stand out prominently and clearly enough to really create some meaningful conversations and eventual change.
Them is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Rating 3.5 of 5
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