Amazon’s “THEM” is a Genuine Terror Marathon Worth Running
Look this might or might not contain some spoilers. Ion know yet but whatever I say, imma say it with my chest so just be sure you keep it in mind as you read this. Stick around though… cause it’s gonna be good.
Ok So Boom, over the course of the last year, hell the last few years if I’m being honest, I, like many of the beautiful Black people I know and love, have found myself to a great extent in Survival Mode. But that damn 2020-2021 run has truly been on some other shit. Since 2020 many of us have been distanced from family, distanced from human contact, wearing masks while enduring racism, Trumpism, state sanctioned violence against Black people, viruses we can’t see, and Karens that we can. SOME OF US could really use a hug right now! (It’s me! I’m Some of us!). It’s important to acknowledge these very real sentiments before diving into the darkness that is “THEM.”
In the midst of fighting to breathe while simply trying to find a safe place or person around which to do so, many of us have sought refuge in binging movies and series, stealing away for hours through films to escape the traumas of our realities momentarily. Racing through seasons of The Boys, Grown-ish, Hunters, and Snowfall in a day or two of streaming and uber-eats has become a monthly tradition since March of 2020. (I Got the Quarantine pounds to prove it… Baby got Snacks.) It was nothing to knock out a series or two a week. But in April of 2021 “THEM” came across my desk. A 10 part horror series created by Little Marvin, produced by Lena Waithe and starring a beautifully cast Black Family, I was excited to tackle them with the same enthusiasm I’d binged all the other series before “THEM.” I was prepared mentally to breeze through 10 straight hours of whatever it was Little Marvin and Lena were getting ready to throw at me. Bring THAT SCARY SHIT ON! And then I watched the first 2 minutes of this mutha fuckin series and I realized… “THEM” ain’t that. One Minute and 30 seconds into “THEM” my toes were curled in my shoes and my jaw was clinched in fear. A fear for which I had not prepared. A fear of which I’m not sure I could ever be prepared. The type of fear I could not binge even if I tried and I NEEDED to Know why. Wasn’t bout to be no fucking binging “THEM!” I was going to have to get to know Henry, Olivia, Ruby, and Gracie Jean Emory detail by detail, scene by scene, trauma by trauma, and horror by horror, one bite at a time. A terrifyingly worthwhile journey, “THEM” was not a sprint for entertainment purposes, it was a slow, deliberate, and many times painful purging of all that had built up inside me over the last year that I’d been trying to escape through fantasy but needed to confront in reality. “THEM” is a horror story. “THEM” is a Black Love Story. “THEM” is a Redemption story. “THEM” is a Self-Love story. Them is for Us.
Horror is defined as an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. When we subject ourselves to horror films we are saying to the creators “Ok. I’m Here. Scare the shit out of me!” In many ways, we have mentally contracted with the filmmaker to tug at our psyches through tension, torment, and terror of the known and unknown. We are there because we want to be frightened (or cause somebody else’s scared ass made us come with them). After seeing the “THEM” trailer, I was prepared for a ghost story. I was prepared for jump scares. I was prepared for microaggressions and even overt period piece racism. What I was unprepared for was the sheer thought of Black People existing in America as terror in and of itself at anytime throughout history and the impact that daily struggle has on the battle for our souls as the film’s driving force. Every second of simply existing while Black represented a moment where the Emory family was unsafe: Unsafe with their neighbors, unsafe by themselves, and unsafe with themselves. While there are ghosts, the true terror in “THEM” is not rooted in the Supernatural, but in what happens when external forces (like racist ass white folks) create internal traumas and those forces and traumas go unchecked.
Straight Into Compton, Crazy MF Named Betty (Episode 1 Spoilers Probably)
(Look I’m gonna break down Episode 1 Right here and if you ain’t trying to see all that just skip to the last paragraph to get my thoughts and assessment about the series as a whole. This shit long but it’s good so if you tired of reading I understand- but if you like it read on, my friend, read on). The series begins with the shot of a gorgeous Black Mother and her Baby boy together in the kitchen in what appears to be a rural setting on a sunny day. The smiling baby boy giggles as his mother plays with him when their dog, “Sarge” starts barking at the door. As the mother goes to the door to see why Sarge is making such a fuss, she opens the door to see no one there initially. Suddenly an old white woman walks up to the yard of the home smiling and the Black woman cautiously asks if she can help her. At that moment, I am immediately in fear for both the Black mother and her child, because smiling white women on Black Southern property rarely, if ever, means kindness will soon follow. This is literally within the first minute and 30 seconds of the show. That’s about how long Black Joy lasted before whiteness interferes. Now look, y’all throughout this whole damn series White Women be White Womening in ways that white women have historically been known to white women so just know anytime you see me getting ready to talk about one during the course of this summary that some Bullshit is SURE to follow!
Carolyn Bryant ass Bi, this evil ass woman walks up on Sis’ property with all of the entitlement of 1,000 Karens and proceeds to start singing a racist ass song that kinda sounds like some confederate shit. And the part that really pisses me off is when she does this thing, this subtle racist thing where she says to the Black woman “come on sing it with me… you know the words…” because well you know … all black people MUST know the words to this racist ass song. It’s like when the asshole at work asks you about a new rap album from a MF you ain’t never listened to.
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay, Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away, Gone from the earth to a better land I know, I hear their gentle voices calling "Old Black Joe". Chorus I'm coming, I'm coming, for my head is bending low; I hear those gentle voices calling, "Old Black Joe".
Sarge runs even further into the yard barking and inside the little boy begins to make noises like any baby would. The white woman hears this and inquires about the little boy. “What’s his name?” she asks. And the Black woman, whom we later learn to be Olivia Emory replies, Chester. The white woman then asks, “Can I have him? Your boy?” and Olivia now is done with the small talk. She lets the woman know that she needs to get off her property and that her husband will be home soon. The woman discloses that she saw “The Black man with two little girls up the road about an hour ago.” It is now clear that she’s been watching this family. Olivia runs inside and locks the door. Sarge continues barking and suddenly 2 white men can be seen walking into the view through the window. Olivia awakens from what appears to have been a nightmare, she is in the car with her Husband and their 2 little girls and they are headed to their new home in Compton, California where Henry Emory will begin his new job as an Engineer in a few days. (This is the First 5 Fucking Minutes… and the terror hasn’t even remotely begun).
As Ruby and Gracie sit in the back seat each reads a book, Ruby reads a teen magazine with nothing but images of white girls in it and Gracie reads a book about a white teacher named Ms. Vera. We will later learn the internalized impact of them seeing very little representation of people like themselves. It’s reminiscent of the doll study conducted by Thurgood Marshall during Brown v. Board of Education. As they turn into the Compton neighborhood for the first time all of the neighbors in the community come outside to stare at them with looks of fear on their faces. The realtor, a white woman, ushered the Emory family into their new home and asked them to finalize the paperwork. It is in this moment that we see the racist restrictive covenant in the contract: “No Lot shall be leased, rented, or sold to anyone whose blood is not entirely of the Caucasian race. No person of negro blood or heritage shall occupy unless they are a servant.” FYI: This covenant is a very real covenant that was enforced in Compton, California and in other communities throughout the country post- World War II. Olivia is not feeling that shit AT ALL and she let’s Henry know about it but both he and the realtor assure her it’s simply a formality. We later learn that the realtor has been charged with running a redlining scheme to attract black families to the neighborhood, drive up the interest rates to unrealistic levels, convince white residents the property value is decreasing, purchase the property from those engaged in white flight and sell those homes to more black families. The Emory family is one of her first target families. As soon as the ink is dry on the paper Sarge runs to one particular door in the house. The door leads to a basement. One thing we know for sure is that Sarge is intuitive and he doesn’t bark without reason. So if Sarge got bad vibes about the basement… WE ALL should have bad vibes about the basement. As Day one in Compton comes to a close white people gather outside the home of the Emorys and Olivia can be seen loading a gun with Bullets (so you know it’s real).
As Day 2 begins the White Women were already on some bullshit. Betty (whom I shall often refer to as Super Karen) organizes the neighbors to sit outside the Emorys home playing a song called “Civilization” on all their radios. The lyrics are considered “satire” as the man sings “Bongo, Bongo. I don’t wanna leave the Congo. Bingo. Bango. Bongo. I’m so happy in the jungle…” The song is about indigenous people rejecting the ways of missionaries who come to their home to “teach them” how to be “Civilized.” It’s definitely some racist shit.
Olivia gets the little girls ready for school and Ruby asks “How long are they going to do this?” Olivia says “Until they get tired or your mama beats their ass.” She then asks “Why are you my Ruby?” Ruby replies “Because I sparkle.” They walk to the bus stop. Mama says ok listen girls we are only gonna do this once. They walk out the backdoor through the fence to the bus stop to avoid the white folks gathering at their front door.
On Henry Emory’s first day of work at the plant he approaches the white lady receptionist who without even listening to him or looking up tells him the kitchen is on the 3rd floor repeatedly. To which he ultimately replies- I’m looking for engineering. She scratches her neck nervously as though he was being a problem for her. A black man from the mailroom says he can handle it. He then informs Henry that he heard that Henry and the family should be careful in Compton because the white folks there are evil and that they drove some brother and his wife upside down and crazy.
As Gracie Jean who is not yet school age and Olivia sit home alone together. Gracie Jean tells Olivia that “Ms. Vera” taught her a song. The song is the SAME song that the creepy white lady from Olivia’s dream sang earlier in the episode. Olivia becomes extremely upset she sees red rears back to slap Gracie but stops herself. She apologizes profusely and Gracie replies, “It’s Ok. You’re not crazy anymore right mom?” Gracie’s inquiry makes clear that Olivia has suffered in ways we do not yet fully understand and that the suffering manifested itself in a way that was deemed “crazy.”
Olivia walks into her own bedroom and reaches under her bed and pulls out a tiny wooden box with the initials “C.E.” on it. Inside is what appears to be a tiny blanket. She picks it up lovingly and inhales in a longing way. She then takes the box down to the basement and puts it in a little door in a dark corner of the room.
Outside the white women grow weary wondering if their plan to play radios outside the home of the Emorys will be effective. Super Karen, Betty, says to the rest of the women “They looked worn down because they came from some place worse. If we want them out we will have to make this some place worse because getting them out won’t be easy.” Super Karen has no idea just how right she is.
That night the white neighbors concoct a plan to poison Sarge as a way of scaring the Emory family into leaving.
Later that night, Gracie Jean awakens from her bed and wanders into the hallway. From the hallway she sees the silhouette of what appears to be a woman standing in the darkness of the living room. She Calls out “Mama” and the silhouette standing silently in the dark does not respond. The silhouette begins to make its way towards Gracie Jean slowly. It holds out hands to Gracie Jean. Now I ain’t got the best eyesight but the hands looked white to me. It then grabs her by her neck. This scene is a sign of things to come. The camera fades to black.
When Olivia wakes up the next morning, Gracie jean has a mark on her neck. Olivia is livid. Gracie says “she took him mama – nasty old Ms. Vera took Sergeant!” Upon hearing this Olivia and Henry both Jump up! Henry sees the basement door cracked open and races downstairs to discover Sarge dead on the basement floor. Olivia runs and grabs the gun she loaded the night before and goes outside holding it to the sky to let everybody know if they want smoke, she got fire! She begins yelling to the entire neighborhood “Stay the fuck away from my house! Stay away from my family!” Over the next 10 Episodes we learn exactly what she means and why she means it.
Welcome to Compton!
Quick Housekeeping Note: If you enjoyed the analysis of Episode 1 and would like to learn more subscribe to our Youtube Channel where we will dive even deeper into episodes 1-10 of THEM. There’s only so much reading some folks are willing to take but to truly get interactive in the story pull up on us on Youtube! If there are other series or films of any genre that you’d like to see us break down shoot us a message and let us know! Find us on all platforms here linktr.ee/blackwithnochaser. We are NOT QUITE DONE… scroll down for my Final Thoughts on “THEM.”
(Slight Spoiler) We will later learn that what appears to have been a nightmare was, in fact, a flashback and that this flashback highlights the truly gruesome and horrific impetus for what will become the driving factor behind the internal and external horrors the Emory family faces over the next 10 Days in white ass Compton, California. (This is not your Ice Cube’s Compton).
The Journey Gets Dark but it’s Worth Pushing through.
THEM is intended to shake you to your core, to upset you, to terrorize your peace and to push you. That’s the sign of an excellent horror film. Little Marvin achieves this in a number of ways including extensions of systemic racism like: microagression, self-hate, glass ceilings, minstrel shows, brutality, and other atrocities of which I shall not speak. (Brace yourself for very emotional triggers in Episodes 5 and 7… the Covenants may be moments where you need to take a few moments to recenter yourself before continuing with the journey).
A study done by the Journal of Media Psychology highlighted that people often view horror films for 3 reasons: Relevance, Tension, and Unrealism. In other words, people often fantasize about surviving the horrors of the fake monsters they face in film to encourage and distract them from the real monsters they may fear facing. Therein, lies the Dilemma created in “THEM”. The most fearsome monsters in the series are the real ones and the ones manifested by our realities. As Black people living through the very real moment of seeing Defense Attorneys attempt to explain away the Murder of George Floyd during Derek Chauvin’s trial while also taking to the streets to AGAIN demand justice for the recent killing of young Daunte Wright in the very same city, it is understandable why at this very moment any of us would find the horrors that reveal themselves in “THEM” revolting, disgusting, upsetting, angering, and triggering. In a moment where many of us are seeking safe places to heal and escape, “THEM” is anything but safe and is definitely no place to escape. These are not the unreal horrors of which the study spoke, but in 2021, they are absolutely relevant and absolutely filled with tension from the opening credit to the closing scene. Intense Fear. Shock. Disgust. They all manifest themselves throughout the series. Choosing to watch “THEM” is actively electing to walk through the fire to see what awaits us on the other side. I’m glad I chose to see what was on the other side. “THEM” is a marathon of 10 days of terror levied upon Black Lives, and every viewer with the fortitude to see it through to the end will understand why it can only be won when the running stops.
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M A S T E R P I E C E !!!!!!!!