The racist violence in Amazon’s new series left execs ‘shaken.’ Does it go too far?
This story contains detailed spoilers from the later episodes of “Them: Covenant.”
The sun shines brightly on the handsome homes and pristine lawns lining Palmer Drive in Compton, but a closer look reveals that it’s anything but a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
For the record:
2:10 PM, Apr. 10, 2021An earlier version of this article misstated the current majority population of Compton. The city is now predominantly Latino, not predominantly Black. Also, an earlier version of this article said “Antebellum” is a Netflix film. It’s a Hulu film.
Strung up in front of the home, newly occupied by the Emory family, are “pickaninny” dolls — the dominant historical caricature of Black children. The N-word has been burned into the front lawn. The symbols come courtesy of local white residents, a message to the newcomers — the only Black family on the block — that they are not welcome.
The plight of the Emory family is at the center of Amazon’s new anthology series “Them,” partly inspired by the Great Migration, when millions of Black families oppressed by the racism of the Jim Crow South relocated to the West, Northwest and Midwest. Set in 1953, the series follows the fictional Emorys, who have journeyed from North Carolina to settle in Compton.
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Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), his wife, “Lucky” (Deborah Ayorinde), and their two young daughters have more to fear than hostile neighbors. They are locked in a deadly battle with supernatural forces, putting a sinister twist on the familiar refrain, “There’s no place like home.”
The 10-episode first season, subtitled “Covenant,” follows other high-profile mash-ups of the country’s troubled history of race relations and genre elements. Like last year’s Emmy winner, “Watchmen,” its HBO counterpart, “Lovecraft Country,” and Hulu‘s “Antebellum,” “Them” features horrific scenarios of Black people being attacked, images that remain highly resonant with the national furor surrounding police brutality against Black people and the resurgence of white supremacist groups.
While much of the menace in “Them” comes from things that go bump in the night, the most shocking horror lies in its more realistic scenes of racist violence, which are arguably more disturbing than the vivid images in its recent predecessors. The mayhem gains momentum in the fifth episode, which depicts the murder of a Black infant while his mother is raped and continues in a later episode with the blinding of a Black couple with hot pokers, and a white mob then burning them to death.
In an effort to warn viewers, Amazon has included advisories, along with commentaries from the cast and filmmakers. Still, the viciousness of the sequences, in particular the death of a child on screen, raises questions about whether the depiction of white supremacist savagery goes too far.
“Them” creator and executive producer Little Marvin acknowledged that the violence is upsetting but said it was necessary to illustrate the devastating effects of racism.
“Yes, there is a concern, but at the end of the day, I as an artist have to sit with myself and grapple with the authenticity of the show,” he said. “If I can sleep at night knowing this entire enterprise has an authenticity and integrity to it, then I’m good.”
He added that he and his fellow writers “never once sat in the writers’ room and said, ‘How can we be controversial? ‘How can we be provocative or hot button?’ We asked ourselves two things: what terrified us the most and what felt most true. Typically, those two things were the same.”
Tracing the traumas of racism in America from the past to the present was the creative spark for first-time showrunner Little Marvin, who started developing “Them” about three years ago. (Executive producers on the show, for which Amazon has already ordered a second season, include Emmy winner Lena Waithe.)
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“My inspiration was waking up every day and seeing cellphone videos of Black people being terrorized in some ways, either by threats from police, surveillance or something else,” he said. “That history goes all the way back to the founding of our country. I was also thinking about the American Dream. There’s nothing more emblematic of that than owning one’s home. There’s great pride in that, particularly for Black people. But as you know, it’s been anything but a dream. It’s been a nightmare for Black folks.”
A self-proclaimed horror aficionado who lists “The Exorcist” among his favorite films, Little Marvin decided to tell his tale through this genre lens because he felt it would be effective not only as a storytelling device but also as a true reflection of America’s racial unrest.
“We’re incredibly fractured and split down the middle,” he said. “There are people who want to take the country back to a time they consider great, and there are folks who are fighting for progress. That’s a scary place to be in 2021.”
He was further intrigued when he learned through his research about the racial history of Compton.
“I didn’t know what Black people had experienced moving to Compton during the ‘50s, particularly East Compton,” he said. “Compton is an iconic Black place known all over the world, but 60 or 70 years ago, that was not true. Folks in East Compton were very protective of the whiteness of the area. That lit a lightbulb for me.”
“Them” evolved into a story that would portray how Black families migrated from the South “to stake their rightful claim, only to be greeted with much of the same terror they sought to escape,” he said.
The trauma the Emorys faced in the South is hinted at in the series’ first moments, when Lucky and her infant son, Chester, are home alone in their remote rural residence. A strange woman (Dale Dickey) appears in the front yard and after initially pleasant small talk starts singing an ominous rendition of Stephen Foster’s parlor song “Old Black Joe.”
When the woman hears Chester crying, she asks Lucky, “Can I have him?” The frightened Lucky rushes inside as the woman starts toward the door. Three men in the distance are seen approaching the house. The scene abruptly flashes forward to the Emorys in their car, on the road to California. The baby is not with them.
What happened inside the house is revealed in the fifth episode, titled “Covenant I,” written by Little Marvin and Dominic Orlando and directed by Janicza Bravo (“Zola”). Lucky hides Chester in a closet as the woman and her accomplices break into the house. The men eventually find Lucky and sexually assault her. The woman finds Chester, and after playing with him a bit, stuffs him in a pillowcase. Alongside a Johann Strauss waltz on the soundtrack, Lucky watches helplessly as the invaders toss the trapped child around before the woman starts whirling the case over her head, chanting “cat in the bag,” finally dropping it to the floor. There is no movement as blood seeps through the pillowcase.
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The seed for the scene came to Little Marvin in a nightmare he couldn’t shake.
“It was so vivid and intense that I did what I usually do,” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and go to my phone so I can write down touch points quickly so I don’t forget it. So I was about to do that this time when I felt physically ill in a way that I’ve never felt when contemplating anything I’ve ever wanted to write. I told myself, ‘You’re not going to entertain that thought,’ and went back to bed.
“I was still haunted by it the next day. For the next 48 hours, I couldn’t get the scene out of my head. I can feel when something has an integrity about it — that doesn’t mean I agree with it. My hands were shaking. I’ve never felt so viscerally raw or open than I did contemplating that scene. As an artist, it’s my duty to interrogate — there’s something going on here that I’ve never felt. So I wrote it.”
Little Marvin acknowledges that that the scene is not based on an actual historical incident. But, he said, it anchors the racial horror he wanted to spotlight.
“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.”
In a commentary that accompanies the episode, Ayorinde said the scene was the hardest she’s had to perform in her career, adding, “It was very important that particular scene was as raw, as honest, as tragic as possible. I wanted anyone who had remotely experienced anything close to that to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel believed.”
In a later episode titled “Covenant II,” set in the 19th century, a Black couple who happen upon a religious community are falsely accused of thievery. Their eyes are put out with hot pokers and they are burned to death. The soundtrack for the cruelty is the classic “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
Vernon Sanders, Amazon’s co-head of television, said Little Marvin detailed the upsetting incidents during his pitch to executives as he outlined the entire arc of the season. “By the end, we were teary-eyed. We had chills. We were profoundly moved and shaken. It’s vivid in my mind because you don’t experience those kinds of reactions.”
Asked whether he was concerned that viewers might be upset by the violence despite the advisories, Sanders said, “I suspect there will be a variety of reactions. We thought about it carefully, gave it great weight. Part of the perspective we all came to is that this is a painful truth of our country. We felt it was important not to hide from it, but to confront it, to address what it has been like for people to live in fear of their lives for something they have no control or power over.”
Coincidentally, “Them: Covenant,” which premieres Friday on Amazon, arrives during the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with murder for his role in the death of George Floyd last year, an incident that sparked massive Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Several witnesses in the trial have discussed the trauma they felt while watching Chauvin hold his knee to Floyd‘s neck for almost nine minutes and 30 seconds.
Said Little Marvin: “The timing will be what it will be. My hope is that this series speaks to enough folks and that the authenticity and the integrity of it stands. I started this to honor those families, and that has to take precedent over any sense of fear over timing.”
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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