When Adulation Sours: Contextualizing Amazon’s ‘Them’

A study in cautious optimism.

A Black family at home: Them (2021) Amazon Prime.

The Great Twitter Debate.

For context, I’m infrequently on Twitter. When I’m there, I AM THERE, when I’m not, well I’m not. So, over the past few days, on the platform I missed the impetus of the great skirmish about Black horror vs Black people in horror; to include, there was an equally important conversation about the visual tradition of the medium.

I was on the periphery of the goings-on, so I did a bit of digging and the crux of the conversation was two things. First, the 1 year anniversary of the film Us by Jordan Peele and the trailer debut for the Amazon anthology series entitled Them (2021) clashed simultaneously. Upon seeing the trailer and the discussion circulating around the series, I saw what all of the antagonism, trepidation, and exhaustion was about. Another series with a (dark-skinned) Black family in it, with white suburban antagonists, with a liberal sprinkling of social commentary. True, both properties are similar in their suburban setting and it's true both families are dark-skinned and one of the child cast members, Shahadi Wright Joseph, is a key family member in this series as well.

On the surface, these seemingly minor coincidences don’t seem so bad, right? If this was a singular occurrence, perhaps. However, Black media, especially horror media, requires a very unique and particular focus, especially as it relates to colorism, trauma, and (unimaginative) repetition. Critiques surrounding this series’ deployment of dark-skinned people as its leads is not an isolated incident when framing this from the lens of the United States. Recent and past films such as Us (2019), Get Out (2017), MA (2019), Tales from the Hood (1995), Bones (2001), Candyman (1992), and on and on have predominantly dark-skinned casts, leads, or individuals that have innumerable traumas visited upon their bodies or their souls.

For a more recent example, the series Lovecraft Country (2020) did have a wide array of Black characters, with a suburb/white antagonist subplot as well, similar to Them, and it also dabbled heavily in colorism and foisting pain and particular suffering on its darker-skinned cast members. There is a lot of historical context for Black viewers being weary and leery of film/television projects that predominantly star darker-skinned people or have a singular dark-skinned lead. There is an overwhelming amount of fictional and historical baggage that comes with dark skin that is overwhelmingly linked to trauma, abuse, and violence. Before you raise your hand, no I didn’t miss it. I’ll get to the ‘blackface’ deployed in the trailer soon enough, don’t you worry!

Breaking ‘Them’ Down, via the white gaze:

Anyone else miffed they used the Diana Ross version of Home, instead of the original by Stephanie Mills?

The white gaze is used frequently in this trailer to show from the onset how Black people are ‘othered’ and receive scrutiny even from afar. In suburbia, via windows, you are viewed as a specimen, up for surveillance and dissection.

The white gaze: Them (2021) Amazon Prime.

The malevolent spectre of the minstrel looms large in this trailer, as it smiles and contorts in an inhuman fashion. From one shot to the next, its historical menace demonstrates its power to pivot from amusement to terror.

The minstrel spectre: Them (2021) Amazon Prime.

Beyond the white gaze, white communities collectively used their power to ensure that living in America was constantly hard for Black Americans. From redlining to cross-burnings, the intimidation tactics knew no bounds.

The tactics of intimidation: Them (2021) Amazon Prime.

The trailer lastly employs some of the most well-known agents of antagonism against Black people’s safety, the white male (police officer), the white woman (of any profession), and white teenagers steeped in racist ideology.

The agents of antagonism: Them (2021) Amazon Prime.

Contextualizing Black history…

This trailer in the imagery department seemed to be doing a lot of box-ticking as far as American racism tropes are concerned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because as we know racism certainly has a list that’s a mile long and invariably ugly. However, what the viewing public wishes to see is the myriad of ways that racism manifests itself outside of 1950s/1960s racism. It’s absolutely a good and vital thing that we are unpacking all of the ugliness that occurred in our parent's generation, but the most recent Black horror media projects have also tackled this not only in detail but even extending the context further by showing the destruction of Black ‘Wall Street’ communities, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1920s. Series such as Watchmen (2019) and Lovecraft Country both employed the same locale for historical and narrative purposes and for the viewing public these shows were viewed back-to-back making their impact wane just a bit.

Those who are learned or went on their own personal historical digs for more information know there were far more than one ‘Black Wall Street’, the Red Summer of 1919 wasn’t an isolated event of terror across the United States, and most importantly Black people fought back with whatever resources were available to them. This last part is important because the family shown in this trailer doesn’t seem to wield any weapons to fight back against the white community that is antagonizing them. There’s a balance to showing the reality of Black American life and that includes showing the reality of Black non-pacifism; it’s true Black Americans may have been run out of various communities but they always at least went out swinging or shooting. For more context, see Nicholas Johnson’s: Negroes and the Gun — The Black Tradition of Arms (2014), We Will Shoot Back — Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2014), and This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed — How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2015).

There are far more texts that go into the literal fight for Black lives and the role of physical action being deployed to survive in the midst of racial turmoil and I highly recommend searching them out. They are a treasure trove of information about the Black American story and its layered and fraught history with white supremacist violence. Speaking of, let’s return to a similar topic, wherein the trailer utilized the spectre of ‘blackface’ minstrelsy as a horror/terror device. Indeed, this practice was horrific in a plethora of ways with countless nightmarish descriptors, and it adversely impacted the lives and identity of Black people in an even more insidious way. Some of the most famous (and politically aware) ‘blackface’ performers were indeed Black. A physical and mental dichotomy that shook me, but didn’t surprise me when I thought about the depths of what Black survival could have meant in an era so recently removed from enslavement.

“Unlike the majority of white blackface performers in the 1800s who were born in Northern cities prior to the Civil War, most African American blackface minstrel performers were born after the Civil War and in Southern cities…these artists migrated out of the South and traveled to the West and New York City and formed minstrel groups who advertised their authentic blackness as a selling point to Northern audiences…However, black minstrel performers felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity as laughable, primitive and overly sensual, leading them to develop a self-presentation on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary…Their performances appealed to white audiences but also catered to the black middle class primarily because of the performers’ connection with activist organizations, publications, and presentations. Black performers’ association with these groups and their popularization with white audiences allowed them to ‘transcend local vaudeville stages to bring their art to Broadway and beyond.’” — USF Libraries, History of Minstrelsy, From ‘Jump Jim Crow’ to ‘The Jazz Singer’

In the context of horror, Black Americans would gladly be rid of the imagery and damaging connotations of ‘blackface’ and all it entails, but if recent retrospective projects have taught us anything the power that it wields for the imagination of shifting power dynamics back into the hands of Black people is never-ending. For example, a film that quietly slipped under the radar was The First Purge (2018) that explored how the American government was infuriated the public wasn’t acting in accordance with their demands to decrease the population through violence. Thus, a diabolical scheme was hatched to escalate tensions in the Black community, to scapegoat them, and utilize the perceived violent nature of Black people to deem the Purge as a necessary evil to cleanse the world of undesirables.

The machinations of this scheme was via the historic images of racial terror previously seen en masse in the eighteen and 1900s; police, SWAT, and other militarized forces donning the regalia of the Ku Klux Klan and ‘blackface’ guerrilla warfare masks were sent to cause havoc, chaos, and very specific terror in the film’s Black community. If you are Black or know Black people, you already know the twist, if you could call it that regarding the film. Remember, the reality that I mentioned earlier about Black people protecting themselves and each other from white violence? Well, the entire Black community arms themselves with anything and everything they have on hand, and lets the white interlopers have IT. With how much I’m hyping the film, you’d think it was perfect. No film or media property is, but it illustrated the Black fight to occupy space and live, by any means necessary.

Strangling white supremacy: (The First Purge, 2018)

So, who’s directing, producing, and writing the Them anthology series? Well, it’s a mixed bag actually. There are Black, white, and non-Black persons of color involved in the creation of this project. Does this bode well for the series going forward? Maybe, but alas time will tell. If there’s any of the heavy critical thinking that went into HBO’s Watchmen employed to fully humanize the story elements for its Black cast members then maybe the show will be…okay. Yet, Watchmen wasn’t without its criticisms either. No series is above reproach, as much as I may fawn over its best and beautiful elements. The synopsis of the story states,

‘Them’ is a limited anthology series that explores terror in America. The 1950s-set first season centers on a Black family who moves from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood during the period known as The Great Migration. The family’s idyllic home becomes ground zero where malevolent forces, next-door and otherworldly, threaten to taunt, ravage and destroy them.

Apologies for not doing cartwheels, but this sounds like a good chunk of Lovecraft Country nestled on the west coast, which in theory isn’t bad. There haven’t been too many Black horror or Black people in horror premises located on the west coast of the United States so this could be interesting. Plus, there’s the history element of ‘The Great Migration’, so I hope the show devotes time to that journey, because I know it was rough and dangerous. A lot of some of the most vicious and violent sundown towns, lynchings, etcetera were also on the west coast soo…I’ll give it a chance and see what they do with the fairly untrod territory.

From left to right: Deborah Ayorinde + Shahadi Wright Joseph + Melody Hurd + Ashley Thomas

Let’s circle back to the big initial eye-roll about this series, a singular Black family inside scary racist white suburbia. We know this horror setting well. Actually, perhaps maybe we know it too well and that’s the reason for our collective ho-hum feelings about the trailer and the potential direction of the series. One of my thoughts is that certain horror locales, even for white-centered stories, become stale and suburbia is one of them. We’ve become desensitized to the trappings of Americana suburbia and the horrors therein. Not only is it in our films, (some of us actually live there), but we also see it every single day on the news. We know the white picket fences are rusty and the grass is spray-on green, so what else can you employ to scare us or educate us?

Oh, and real quick can we talk about this same-y, loopy, swirly Netflix-Amazon font? I know I’ve seen this on other posters outside of these streaming platforms and even the film Us utilized it on their promotional materials, so can we search for another typeface, please? It makes all of these projects, although different, look way too similar for the lay-viewer. Just a small gripe, thanks. The artwork for each individual Black character is very pretty though, so kudos for that. To conclude, the biggest concern with Them, as a series, is that it doesn’t become this big redundant, unimaginative, and shallow mess because we want this predominantly dark-skinned Black cast and crew to succeed and get work after this but we want it to be fruitful and challenging and definitely not another Antebellum (2020) that had lofty ambitions, but crashed and burned before the closing credits.

I’m rooting for you.

We’re all rooting for you.

Please, don’t make us say, how dare you.

Sincerely,

Us.

References:

Recommended Reading:

EIC: We Are Horror Magazine. Writer: An Injustice, Gayly Dreadful, Ghouls Magazine, Rely on Horror, SUPERJUMP, and Upper Cut!