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In Them‘s exploration of the iconic American dream through the eyes of a Black family putting down roots in 1950s Compton — with all the racist restrictions, violations and torments common to the era — the series vividly melds all-too-real traumas with supernatural menace to create a new entrant in a burgeoning form of horror, both truth-telling and terrifying. Creator Little Marvin and star Deborah Ayorinde explain why it was important to depict the ugliest moments with unflinching honesty, and reveal the catharsis they experienced in telling the story.
Why do you think that the horror genre has emerged as such a potent and effective lens through which to explore the Black experience in America, especially to tell these stories to contemporary audiences?
LITTLE MARVIN So much of American history — particularly Black history, if you’re really being honest — has been horror. I have to really be real about it. You learn very quickly as a horror writer there’s not much that you can make up that’s more terrifying than saying that it actually occurred. Horror has this tremendous ability for allowing you to unpack really devastating themes: grief and rage and trauma. All of these things have been part and parcel of great horror forever. So it’s not surprising to me that we would come to horror as a place to tell our stories, because it’s always been a place to unpack those kinds of themes.
DEBORAH AYORINDE I agree 1,000 percent. My answer to that question is always because racism is horrific, to be honest with you, so it’s only right. It’s only truthful … it’s just realizing how much of this we didn’t have to exaggerate. For those reasons, horror just makes sense. I love that I’m seeing so many things where we’re exploring racism through that lens, because I feel like it’s just time to get very real about the experience of racism. The experience of being there. Stop sugarcoating it and making it seem like it’s this thing that makes us uncomfortable, a thing that’s debatable. It’s not a debate. Hopefully it can inspire a lot of real conversations about how ugly this thing is, so it can be a thing of the past. Hopefully. Prayerfully.
LITTLE MARVIN I’ve always had a deep and abiding respect for our relatives and for our ancestors. But when you think about the fact that we’re only just beginning to unpack language to describe trauma that we’re dealing with only now, that makes me think 50, 60, 70 years ago, not only did we not have that language, but even if we did, we didn’t have the rights, and that alone is a terrifying proposition.
I think the most rewarding thing is knowing that we’re telling it. It’s like we’re getting to write a love letter to those relatives and to those folks who came before, who might not have had the language. To give that story language has been rewarding, in that sense.
What kind of discussions did the two of you have about what was going to be needed to pull this off as you embarked on this journey?
AYORINDE When we first met, I felt just so safe. I remember our conversation flowing, and whatever was going to be required of me, which I knew was everything I had and then some, I felt like you had my back. From that moment I felt, when we had our first meeting, we were just on the same page. It was just a beautiful conversation. I don’t remember that there was ever a specific, “Hey girl, you know you’re going to have to do this — are you OK?” I felt like along the way it was just that kind of flow, like, “I know you got this.” That vote of confidence. And I really always appreciate you for that.
LITTLE MARVIN That was never a question to me, to check in with you, because you gave yourself so fully to this from day one. We didn’t know all the places it was going to go. Some of it was a discovery together, over the course of the journey, and yet I felt like our show was being held by you. It’s interesting to hear you say that you felt held, and I felt like you were holding our show with every choice and every page. It was never lost on me that you occupied nearly every frame of this entire show, and that it would be quite the endurance test. I think it’s a testament to you. It was very easy for me to hold you in that regard and to make you feel safe, because I knew what you were giving.
I tell everybody that you have a dream of a character in your head, and then the person walks in and it’s like your wildest dreams just walked through the door. And that was me meeting you.
AYORINDE I’m not crying, you’re crying!
Some critics and viewers were disturbed by how far the depiction of Black trauma in the show went, calling it too explicit and even exploitative — particularly in the fifth episode, when Deborah’s character, Lucky, is sexually assaulted. Why was it important for you to go to those lengths?
AYORINDE My focus has always been those people who have come up to me and said, “I felt represented. I felt seen by that performance. That is exactly how it felt when I went through that.” I wanted people to watch that scene in episode five and feel it, to the point where if anyone else in their life comes up to them and says that they’ve experienced that, that they would take a second before they say, “I don’t believe you,” or question that person, because now they’ve really seen this raw example of what it feels like, what it means, what that experience may look like.
There are always going to be people who are going to be naysayers with everything we do in life. For some people, they’re like, “This is really hard for me.” But I’ve heard you, L.M., say that this was not meant to comfort anyone. It’s not. I just feel like the truth is always needed. I’ve heard of no one who watched it and says they were not affected. For me, that makes me feel like I did my job.
LITTLE MARVIN There were never any choices that were made in the show, from day one, that were for the sake of being explicit or provocative or hot-button. That was never the M.O. The M.O. was how can we be most true and what terrifies us the most? And what we found was that the thing that was most true was also the most terrifying.
The Jim Crow institution was evil. We need to start calling it what it was. It was a domestic terror regime, and this has always been domestic terror that we face. The fact that your house is not your own, your body is not your own. … These are the things that are endemic to the Black experience in this country. To not unpack that with all of the truth and rawness and the sort of honesty, it felt like a disservice.
We also didn’t set out to make a show that just trafficked in trauma. We set out to make a show about Black strength and about Black love and about Black family and, with Ruby’s [played by Shahadi Wright Joseph] storyline, the journey toward self-love. These are the journeys that the Emorys are on in the face of great trauma and pain and grief and rage. Ultimately, it’s about where the journey of the show is taking you. And the journey is definitely one through trauma, but trauma itself was never the goal.
There’s a very cathartic nature to the climax of the series — even plenty of rage and some ambiguity. As artists, did Them give you your own sense of catharsis?
LITTLE MARVIN I’m not going to lie: The show was an exorcism in many ways. I mean, it was an exploration of rage and of fear and, really, things that I personally was feeling about the world in which we’re living today. I started writing this during a time when I felt particularly like every morning I was waking up and just seeing Black folks dealing with terror all the time. It really started in that very deeply personal place. The ambiguity is because here’s a story that takes place in the 1950s, but could it not also be taking place today in many ways, you know?
AYORINDE Lucky gave me the space to express myself freely. It has been life-changing. I don’t think there had ever been a time in my life that I have felt so heard. Now I walk around with a boldness … I own my feelings more. I own what I need to do. What I do. I just own it so much more now. I’m just so grateful for Lucky, for the character, but also for this entire process, and for you, L.M., for really creating that safe space.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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