Horror is meant to entertain — so are the makers using black trauma for entertainment? Or using horror as a metaphor?
The poet was right about too much suffering making a stone of the heart. Little Marvin’s horror anthology, Them, is proof of the truth of the line from WB Yeats’ Easter 1916. How much punishment can the Emory family take from their racist neighbours and the malevolent spirits in their home before the viewers become comfortably numb?
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Each one of the 10 episodes, including the controversial episodes 5 and 9, show the Emorys being subjected to every kind of abuse starting with killing the family dog to rape, blinding, and the stomach-turning killing of a baby. There have been conversations around exploitation of black trauma, and pandering to the white gaze, with the cast and crew defending their choices.
Lena Waithe, who executive produced alongside creator Little Marvin, said, “The first season will speak to how frightening it was to be black in 1953.” The question is who is the show speaking to — white or black audiences? What is the purpose? To make the whites feel guilty or the blacks remember?
- Season: 1
- Episodes: 10
- Run time: 33 to 55 minutes
- Creator: Little Marvin
- Starring: Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Alison Pill, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd, Ryan Kwanten
- Storyline: A black family moves into a white neighbourhood to face threats from neighbours and the supernatural
And then there are the horror elements — covenants, creaking doors, creepy, dim basements, jump scares, incongruous mirror reflections, gothic mental asylums, lobotomised patients, and that hoary chestnut of whether the visions are real or in the character’s mind.
Horror is meant to entertain — so are the makers using black trauma for entertainment? Or using horror as a metaphor? The very fact that so many questions were coursing through my mind as I slogged through the ten episodes meant, the show had made a stone of my heart with its earnest depiction of all the horrors visited upon a human mind and body.
There have been similarities drawn to Jordan Peele 2019 film, Us, with a common actor, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Lovecraft Country, an anthology set in the same time period. While Lovecraft Country used fantasy, horror and sci-fi to explore themes of race and gender, it also told a ripping good yarn stylishly.
Them is beautifully shot, clothed, scored and acted, and not at all engaging. Even as one luxuriates in the beautiful frames, one’s attention wanders to Pink Floyd’s psychedelic excursions in ‘Us and Them’. The dreamy number from the iconic 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, speaks of “black and blue” instead of the expected “black and white”, hinting at police cars and a severe beating perhaps?
As mentioned, the cast is superb from Deborah Ayorinde as Lucky, the traumatised mother to Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd who play her daughters, Ruby Lee and Gracie. Ashley Thomas is the head of the family, Henry, traumatised by the Second World War and the ingrained racism of his workspace.
Alison Pill with flowing, flared out ‘50s skirts, the cinched waist, softly curling blond hair and disconcerting sloe-black eyes, is the chief antagonist, Betty. Her arc is the most frustrating as after leading the charge for most part, she is moved to the sidelines… never to return.
The horror does not provide the catharsis it is supposed to, and after a point all the pretty frames and dresses fail to propel the story along, as we watch the Emory family face yet another sling and arrow from outrageous fortune — and no, there is no terrible beauty being born either.
Them is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video