tv review

Them Is Pure Degradation Porn

Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Amazon

In 2018, the artist Lorraine O’Grady said at a Brooklyn Museum book event, “In the future, white supremacy will no longer need white people.” That future is now.

O’Grady’s belief nods to the ways the structures of white supremacy are so ingrained in our culture that to exorcise them goes far beyond reckoning with whiteness itself. But after watching Them, Amazon’s latest “horror” anthology series, which dropped this past Friday, this quote came to mind for its distillation of the way people of color sometimes participate in their own degradation and in the systems that damage our lives and, in many cases, cut them heartbreakingly short.

Them — showrun and created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe — isn’t just rote, flagrantly biting the aesthetics of other filmmakers. It isn’t just morally bankrupt. It isn’t just grating in its empty platitudes and kiddie-pool-deep proclamations. I am comfortable calling it one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture I’ve seen in the last few years, one that left me spent after the grueling process of watching its virulent imagery. It is a stunning refutation to Hollywood’s belief that representation behind and in front of the camera will fix its inherent racism. (I’m not sure Hollywood can be saved, no matter how many people of color it ropes into its machinations.) Perhaps I should have known when, early in its first episode, it explains the Great Migration in text overlaying the screen, tipping its hand that it is not for Black audiences at all, but everyone else.

Spanning ten days in 1953, Them follows the Emory family — Henry (Ashley Thomas), an engineer; Lucky (the utterly gorgeous Deborah Ayorinde), the matriarch and show’s primary lens; and their two daughters, teenage Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and freshly school-aged Gracie (Melody Hurd) — as they journey from North Carolina to the lily-white suburban enclave of Compton, Los Angeles, a move that upends their lives. From the jump, it is apparent how tricky it will be to ingratiate themselves to their Compton neighbors. As the only Black family on the block, they immediately cause a fury stoked by Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), the picture of the mid-century blonde Americana housewife, who has an icy and distant relationship with her husband, Clarke (Liam McIntyre). Her prim sense of propriety fails to hide the noxious racism she is more than proud to express, arguing about their “birthright” as white people, those whose “fathers built the world.”

Racism is portrayed in a number of ways throughout the series. Golliwogs hanging from nooses along the Emorys’ porch. Curses. Epithets. Glares. Redlining. Ostracization. Realty and banking scams. But the Emorys don’t only have to contend with their viciously racist neighbors. There’s also the matter of a haunting that started long before they arrived, one that warps their sense of self and besets them with great violence. Each member of the family deals with their own specific spectre, like the monstrous, tap-dancing blackface figure with pupil-less black eyes that haunts Henry. But all the figures turn out to be the visages of a singular entity, the Black Hat Man (Christopher Heyerdahl). In school halls, in work rooms, and especially in domestic spheres, these characters are haunted and suffer because of it. (The reasoning behind this only starts to make sense in the last two episodes. Before then, the supernatural elements feel disjointed from the more banal, daily churn of the racism the Emorys face.) Ultimately, the show’s genre-driven storytelling results in, at best, a few fleetingly creepy moments. Nothing sticks, nothing scares, and nothing unnerves.

Little Marvin’s thin cinematic résumé becomes evident in the show’s inability to make the most of its horror inspirations. Interviewed by Variety, the creator says, “As a kid, loving all of those classic movies, folks who looked like me never populated the center of those frames. Here’s this classic Hitchcock frame that back in the day would have only held Janet Leigh or Eva Marie Saint or Grace Kelly, and instead here’s Deborah Ayorinde in the center of the frame, looking gorgeous, dazzling and Black.” Little Marvin may see this as homage, but with the show’s garish use of color (it is in love with washing a frame in cherry red) and its adherence to split diopter shots, as well as certain ostentatious camera movements, Them is more jacking Hitchcock’s style than remixing it. There’s something insidious about Little Marvin’s perspective in this quote: It supposes that putting a Black person in a visually white concept is inherently radical, instead of showing the limits of his imagination.

The aesthetic failures of Them can’t be untangled from its political ones. As the characters wrestle with Betty and their neighbors’ attempts to get them out of the neighborhood — first with intimidation, then with outright violence — the directors of the show (most of whom are white men) often rely on displaying the white gaze in a literal fashion. White characters glaring at the Emory family is one of the show’s central visual tropes. Epithets like “N - - - - ss,” “sow,” “animal,” “coon,” and “ape” are spit from the lips of white people, emphasizing Them’s obsession with showing the depravity of racism in extreme terms. But it doesn’t wholly consider just how damaging such language and imagery is not only for the psyche of the characters involved, but for the Black people in the audience who understand it on a visceral, intimate level. At the same time, it has nothing new to say about whiteness — how it works, how it perpetuates itself, how ingrained it is in our culture. Yes, sometimes racists are venomous, other times they’re passive. Sometimes they burn the words “n - - - - - heaven” in your yard, other times they wear a smile as they rope you into a real-estate deal you’ll never escape from. The adjacent desperations of the Emory family are meant to limn the material and psychological effects of living under the threat of anti-Blackness in America. Henry wrestles not only with being discarded and abused as an engineer in a facility that’s all white, save for the janitors, but also with his PTSD as a veteran who was experimented upon with mustard gas by the very country he swore to defend. Ruby is obsessed with whiteness in a way that only becomes clear later on. Gracie, like her sister, seems uncomfortable with what her mother represents as a Black woman, whose traumas have led her to act with an emotional intensity that they find embarrassing and “crazy.” And Lucky? Well, Lucky has to bear the weight of the world in ways so many Black women are forced to.

Them primarily feels empty during the first half of its run. But episode five, “Covenant I.” — which is, notably, directed by the show’s only Black director, Zola’s Janicza Bravo — turns the show from a grating, hollow depiction of Blackness in America to one that revels in degrading its Black characters in a way that left me questioning both the Black creators involved and the studio system that is eager for this kind of work.

[Spoilers ahead]

In “Covenant I.,” we’re made privy to what exactly happened that led the Emorys to leave North Carolina. We see an unnamed white woman (Dale Dickey), who sings the racist parlor song “Old Black Joe” to Lucky and seems eagerly interested in her baby boy, Chester. Later, the woman brings two white men to the Emory home. Lucky hides the baby. They break in. What happens next, like everything in the back half of the show, is grueling to watch. Lucky is brutally raped while Chester is put in a sack and tossed back and forth until he’s dead. The direction of this sequence is unflinching. Watching one of the white men heave on top of Lucky and hearing her desperate cries feels unending. Throughout the series, it’s Lucky who proves to be the most crucial lens for this show. She is tortured both within the domestic sphere and outside of it. Nowhere is safe for her. (That there is little joy for Black folks pretty much anywhere in the show, even among each other, is telling.) Ayorinde really gives the character her all, but her efforts — like those of the other actors — can’t obscure Them’s ugly core: It does not truly care about Black people. It only knows how to wring terror from the pain we experience.

It gets worse. Episode nine is the one that nearly broke me. Directed by Craig William Macneill in black and white, it zooms back to the Civil War era in order to shed light on the evil that haunts the land that became Compton. (Weirdly, it’s the same visual and narrative approach taken in The Haunting of Bly Manor, in which the old evil is explained in a flashback episode. That is not exactly a show you want to take your cues from.) Two presumably enslaved folks, including a pregnant woman, come to the white settlement after their wagon breaks down. They are encircled and attacked by the white settlers after tensions rise — blinded with a hot iron poker, strung up by rope, and eventually set aflame while bystanders look on with awe as the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” plays.

For the Los Angeles Times, Little Marvin addressed the show’s particularly violent scenes, including Lucy’s rape. “What I’ve come to realize is that I wanted a scene that would rip through the screen, grab the viewer by the jugular and force them to contend with a history of violence against Black bodies in this country,” he said. “If I did that in a way that you’ve seen before — like an act of police brutality or a slave narrative — that in some way creates a distance or a salve for a viewer. ‘I’ve seen it before.’ But this is so abominable it defies you to see it that way.” But what viewer is Little Marvin trying to grab? What Black viewer would ever feel a sense of distance from the visual representation of police brutality or slavery? The use of the phrase “Black bodies” is galling here. The terminology, which gained a particular popularity in the wake of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, often feels like a linguistic way to distance Black people from their humanity rather than shining a light on it. After all, violence doesn’t happen “against Black bodies” in America, it happens toward Black people — affecting not just the flesh we live in, but our very psychology and those beautiful, complicated relationships we have with other Black folks and the world around us.

I couldn’t help but think about the material effect on Black folks of watching such violence in life and on screen. When we’re being confronted by news stories like that of the killing by police of 20-year-old father Daunte Wright in Minnesota, watching Them feels like compounded trauma. It doesn’t induce empathy or the desire for abolition in white folks. It doesn’t force others to consider the anti-Blackness they perpetuate. If anything, it lets modern white people off the hook, providing extremes with which they can distance themselves from their own racism. Little Marvin and Lena Waithe, like far too many Black creators in the industry, are not interested in challenging the status quo; they’re now a part of it. In doing so, they are cravenly using Black pain to line their pockets.