“Them” and UsDo We Need to Televise Black Pain to Take It Seriously?

Melody Hurd as Grace Jean, left, and Deborah Ayorinde as Lucky in Them (Photo credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

This article contains spoilers for Prime Video’s new horror series Them, as well as graphic descriptions of racist violence, infanticide, and sexual assault.

When the trailer for Little Marvin’s Prime Video series Them dropped, commenters online compared it to Jordan Peele’s 2019 film Us. The similarity ends with the naming convention, however, as Marvin’s period piece tells a story about sometimes supernatural, often human-made racist terror through striking depictions of grotesque violence. In comparison, Peele’s style largely casts shock value aside for curiosity-fueled, exponentially growing dread. Focusing on the Emory family: mother Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), father Henry (Ashley Thomas), and daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), Marvin’s narrative frequently jumps time periods and realities, with the main story arc centering the family’s relocation from a rural community in North Carolina to Compton, California. When they move out West after Henry lands a job as an engineer working on advanced contracting projects for the Department of Defense, the family meets terrors they thought they’d left behind.

Henry’s the only Black person in his workplace that isn’t in the service sector; he experiences microaggressions and explicit racism, including an unexpected and unwarranted demotion. The girls face racist treatment and othering at school, and Lucky meets white resistance from not only the neighborhood housewives who rally the whole block to terrorize her family, but from every white person she encounters. While the rest of the family has glimmers of a “normal life” in their day-to-day encounters with white people, Lucky is the only one who’s never given a break from white violence. Her only reprieve is a bus trip to visit a family member in the L.A. area, where she parties with other Black people and truly exhales for one of the only times in the series. The Black women she meets along her journey share similar difficulties, as does the woman who births the narrative’s ghostly origin.

Stomach-churning violence against Black women is near constant, which made Them difficult to bear at times. In multiple scenes—scenes that, as they play out, leave their existence in reality or dreamscape up to the viewer—we’re unable to determine if a Black woman is the perpetrator, the victim, or both, often with her own family members as her targets. Early in the series, viewers are made to believe that Lucky, in a fit of madness, was involved in the death of her infant son while her husband and daughters were out. Only in the last episode is it confirmed to the viewer and to Henry that the flashbacks Lucky experienced throughout were true: prolonged, bloodcurdling, frequent memories depict her being gang raped by white men and her infant being bludgeoned to death by a white woman.

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In other vignettes, the plot meanders through stories of Black women Lucky is told to get in touch with, who also served as the tip of the spear for desegregating their hostile white Compton neighborhoods. These introductions are made by seemingly well-meaning white people, including the realtor who sold the Emorys their house with a predatory loan—part of a detailed scheme to spark white flight and richen realty firms and mortgage lenders. The real estate agent attests that these other families are perfectly happy and integrated now, but Lucky learns of a darker reality, which is eventually ham-handedly traced to the region’s white settlers. I have a personal theory that origin stories take viewers out of the horror and into the campy patterns that critics use to delegitimize the genre. The rule unfortunately rings true for the departure Them takes into the racist specters that haunt Black families—one referred to as the Black Hat Man—who compels them to do horrible things, including murdering their families.

Some of the women, Lucky included, are institutionalized for their visions of this ghost, who we later learn was a German settler who founded a Christian community. Warped by personal loss, starvation, dehydration, and the growing hostility of his racist peers, the “holy” man turned mad and became convinced Black people deserved the brutal treatment God bestowed on them, and then inflicted his own punishments in turn. In a scene I would recommend skipping—honestly, the whole origin story episode is skippable—his followers bind, beat, torture, and use hot pokers to blind a Black couple who had been in their care, and then, they burn them alive. The woman was pregnant and her water had broken hours before, adding the screams of her labor pains to the shrieks of her brutal torture. A second season is starting production soon, and Marvin said it will focus on a different cast of characters: “Every story will be a different time period, different folks, but what will stay the same is that it will always take folks who were largely marginalized and historically never at the center of these kinds of stories and we’re going to pull them from the margins and put them front and center in their own stories of American terror.”

At many points during Them, I felt like the accelerating, visceral violence was intended to nudge at white audiences, asking how much Black pain they could take until they finally condemned it and owned their role in it. As far as I can tell, the limit doesn’t exist.

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My fear doesn’t come from telling stories of horror centering marginalized people—I’ve even pleaded for this in an essay published in the Monster issue of Bitch—but I’m afraid of the delivery. At many points during Them, I felt like the accelerating, visceral violence was intended to nudge at white audiences, asking how much Black pain they could take until they finally condemned it and owned their role in it. As far as I can tell, the limit doesn’t exist. In our own real lives, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, is on trial—and it’s unendingly playing out on cable news day after day, over the backdrop of even more Black death at the hands of police. Those with the stomach to watch or the temerity to bear witness will see various videos showcasing a Black man’s prolonged, brutal death at the hands of a white man, often seen grinning and mocking the crowd—cocksure of his impunity. Some clips are repeated over and over, dissected for just how violent and intentional the murder appears. In the past few weeks, we’ve also seen videos of Asian people being attacked, matched with hand-wringing over whether a white man’s shooting spree targeting mostly Asian women was indeed racist. In many instances, cases have been made against watching and sharing the graphic videos, pleading for the victims to be respected and limiting the trauma of those who have also experienced racial violence.

We know fictional horror storytelling can center people of color in a way that doesn’t veer into trauma or torture porn. For me, other well-done stories in the genre give hints of the ghastliness for the viewer to unpack themselves—by connecting to our own fears or shining a light on our own complicities, rather than laying everything out so starkly and explicitly onscreen. This goes for the nature and depth of the violence and the images of the “monsters” alike. We know Black pain is real, racist violence is real, and terrorizing communities of color is real, and diluting these realities into the moments of carnage themselves or the individual monster’s actions gives audiences less credit for our own ability to derive meaning in horror, and worse, could alienate horror fans of color. Through powerful, skilled acting, smart cinematography, and immersive scenery and scoring, Them drops viewers into a tale that leaves no guessing where American horrors fester: in us, baked into the dirt under our feet, in the water we drink, and the air we breathe. A challenge for future iterations of the series will be allowing viewers to do the work of imagining ourselves creating and existing in a world where the horror is less man-made.

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Shireen Rose Shakouri, an Iranian and Italian American woman with long brown hair and red glasses, wears a blue shirt and smiles at the camera
by Shireen Rose Shakouri
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Shireen Rose Shakouri is a Washington, D.C.-based horror-movie maven and reproductive justice advocate.