Indeed, I was apprehensive about diving into Them, even before the most recent cycle of police-brutality-related news. Quite frankly, I am tired. But the series does have some high points. Them is visually stunning, and its portrait of 1950s Compton is full of rich hues, and the Emory family is lit to bring out the depth of all the actors’ skin tones. Danger creeps in slowly at first, beginning in the pilot when Lucky Emory (played by Deborah Ayorinde) sees a disclaimer on the mortgage for the house that her husband, Henry (Ashley Thomas), has chosen for their family: No one with “Negro blood” is to occupy the home.
Unlike horror works that grapple with racism in its myriad forms, Them is animated by a specific manifestation—housing segregation—which gives the story both narrative and spatial focus. Little Marvin’s portrayal of the laws that enforced housing segregation is meticulous. Soon after the Emorys arrive in Compton, terror begins to emanate from and surround their suburban home. When the younger Emory daughter, Gracie (Melody Hurd), sensed a strange figure living in the house, I hoped Them would tie in elements of Black American lore about “haints”—the Southern-tradition ghosts that also appear in fictional works such as Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.
But instead of deepening its story with thoughtful references to past works of Black horror, Them’s most unnerving scenes feature everyday 1950s racism or add only small genre tweaks to it. White people gather to discuss their neighborhood’s “Negro problem”; police officers threaten to run the Emorys out by any means necessary; minstrel performers surprise Henry at work. At one point, neighbors pour gasoline on the Emorys’ lawn and set it on fire. When the camera zoomed out, I expected to see the familiar shape of a burning cross etched into the grass, but Them did manage to surprise me. Instead, the flames spelled out a whole phrase: NIGGER HEAVEN.
I knew then that Them would be painful to watch not just because of its excessive violence, but also because it lacks any real subtlety or storytelling finesse. The show’s most contentious scene comes later, though, in its fifth episode, when white strangers simultaneously murder a Black infant and rape his mother. Notably, the episode is the only one directed by a Black person, Janicza Bravo, also the director of A24’s upcoming film Zola. Another wave of online reactions was sparked by a Los Angeles Times interview with Little Marvin that described some of the show’s most disturbing sequences, including the blinding and subsequent burning of a Black couple. (Although a lot of criticism on social media has been aimed at Waithe, who wrote the screenplay for the much-maligned Queen & Slim, she didn’t write or direct any installments.*)
It’s hard to imagine any work, even a horror series, that could portray such spectacular anti-Black violence with nuance or grace. Though horror has been used to address the trauma of sexual assault in the past, especially in women-led productions, the specifics of Them’s murder-rape scene don’t cohere into a cathartic rendering simply because someone like Bravo is behind the lens. As Due told me, some of the smartest and most empathetic creators are especially mindful of how they portray physical harm enacted upon Black characters. In other words, it matters how creators deploy violence, not just whether it exists at all. Paraphrasing something that Peele himself once said, Due told me that creators should ask themselves whether anti-Black violence in their works feels “necessary and redemptive to the storytelling.”
Unfortunately, too many recent works have failed to live up to that ideal. HBO’s overwrought Lovecraft Country (co–executive produced by Peele) deployed the literal monsters written by its bigoted namesake to both symbolize and enact Jim Crow–era racism, as I wrote last year. With its blend of monsters and magic, the show promised viewers fantastical catharsis, if not outright escapism. And yet, it ended by visiting an onslaught of violence with no real narrative value upon its Black characters. Last fall’s plantation-horror film Antebellum subjected its protagonist, Eden (Janelle Monáe), to even worse cruelty, flinging her from modern-day life to a setting meant to replicate the pre–Civil War South. As my colleague David Sims wrote, “The first 40 or so minutes of Antebellum are a ceaseless torrent of violence and abuse … The terrifying realities of slavery are reduced to horror-movie tropes.” Like Them, Antebellum points out the connections between historical and contemporary racism but has little else to say.