Between 1916 and 1970, millions of Black American families moved from the Deep South to cities across the northern and western parts of the United States. They journeyed hundreds of miles in search of jobs, voting rights and safety from the terror of Jim Crow. “They left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote Emmett J. Scott, a Black journalist and scholar, in his 1920 book Negro Migration During the War. But the curse of American racism paid no mind to geography, and for many Black Americans the greener pastures proved to be sinister.
Them, Amazon’s alluring but vexing new anthology series (created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe) exploring — per press notes — “terror in America,” uses this unsettling reality to ground the story of the Emorys, an upwardly mobile Black family that moves to a nearly all-white neighborhood in East Compton, California, in 1953. The first season, titled “Covenant” and running a bloated 10 episodes (each between 45 and 60 minutes), follows the terror to which Henry (Ashley Thomas), his wife Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), and their daughters Ruby (Us’ Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd) are subjected by their new community.
Them joins a recent slate of films and series that employ horror as a lens for examining the Black American experience. Unfortunately, unlike Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Us (to which the show has drawn comparisons because of the title and the presence of the gifted Joseph), Them neither taps fully into the shivery potential of traditional horror nor adds much to what many viewers already know about racial terror in the United States. During a time when violence against Black people can so easily be witnessed through screens and social feeds, peddling Black terror without a fresh exploration of its roots or its future is at best a bit boring — and at worst, gratuitous. If this kind of art doesn’t say anything new or different about the relationship between Black people and America, then it risks becoming little more than trauma porn. After all, do we really need more images of Black people dying?
At the beginning of the first episode, buoyed by optimism and hope, the Emory family moves into 3011 Palmer Drive, a dignified yellow house with a manicured lawn. They have traveled from rural North Carolina, where they lived a relatively peaceful life until a tragic event forced them to flee. The family thirsts for what East Compton offers: proximity to relatives in Watts, a sense of ownership and, most important, distance from their past.
Their white neighbors see their arrival differently. Led by Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), they launch a violent campaign against the Emorys in an effort to drive them out. The wives post up in front of their home and loudly play “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo),” a racist 1948 song by the Andrews Sisters and Danny Kaye, and the men start a fire on their lawn spelling out “N—er Heaven” and hang sambo dolls from their porch. They report the Emorys to the police and drum up fear of a Black invasion. Even the kids participate, with the son of a community member peeing on the freshly laundered sheets hanging on a clothesline in the Emorys’ backyard.
Any hope the Emory family had of finding safety in their own home quickly evaporates. It turns out that the lease, which Henry agreed to sign without telling Lucky, includes a covenant explicitly prohibiting Black people from living on the land. When Lucky notices this on move-in day, Henry assures her that it’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience. The realtor (Brooke Smith) — who in later episodes becomes central in explaining exploitative lending practices against Black homeowners — also insists they’ll be fine. “A little red ink and those words disappear,” she says. “This house is yours.”
Lucky isn’t too sure, and she’s right. Within a couple of days (the 10 episodes roughly correspond to the Emorys’ first 10 days in the house), strange events start to occur. One night, Gracie wakes up to investigate an unusual sound, only to encounter a dark, shadowy figure; the next morning the family dog has died, and Lucky finds a burn-like scar on Gracie’s neck. Gracie and Lucky — by far the most interesting characters — try to figure out what happened, venturing into the basement, where Lucky hears, but does not see, the mysterious figure. And that’s just the start.
The rest of the season (episode directors include Janicza Bravo and Nelson Cragg) wrestles with how the Emorys balance their public and private selves, the tensions between home and the outside world, and the myth of safety in America. Henry, for example, struggles as the only Black engineer at his job, confident he deserves to be there but burdened by expectations to show constant deference and gratitude toward his white boss. (At one point, to relieve stress after a particularly charged conversation, Henry screams into a bunch of paper towels in the office bathroom.) The premise of Them is pointed and timely, and the production values top-notch, with lush cinematography capturing the sheen of suburbia and dramatic music gesturing at the rot beneath the pearly white smiles and pastel-colored homes.
But aesthetics are only part of the job, and Them suffers from an overcrowded narrative and too many themes, making for an uneven, dizzying, at times overly dense viewing experience. From the violent neighbors and the history of Black homeownership to the traumas that plague each member of the Emory family, the show takes on more than it can responsibly unpack. As a result, the characters register as symbols rather than real, recognizable humans: Lucky becomes a stand-in for the challenges of Black motherhood, Henry for the double-edged sword of ambition, Ruby for internalized self-hatred borne of only seeing images of white women as the standard of beauty, and Gracie for the girlhood that never was.
Each of these characters could have anchored their own well-paced miniseries, but instead are jammed into 10 hours sprinkled with clichés about being Black in a white world (the “twice as good” speech, again) and contemporary horror gimmicks (tight frames on terrified faces, jump scares and musical manipulation to signal something is amiss). For all its topicality and effort to shock, the show feels surprisingly stale and sluggish.
That’s a shame, because certain episodes (and I’ve seen all of them) offer glimmers of what Them could have been with a pared-down narrative and fewer tired stylistic tricks and tics. Early in the series, Gracie and Lucky share a moment in which we learn that Lucky used to be a teacher — a rare glimpse into a life beyond the pain of her past. Gracie, eager to start kindergarten and to impress her mother, jumps off her bed and performs an eerie rendition of “Old Black Joe,” a 19th-century minstrel song by Stephen Collins Foster that becomes a motif in the series.
Hurd’s outstanding performance — swaying and then stomping, looking utterly possessed — underscores the terrifying insidiousness of racism, how it can make its way into your home and latch onto your psyche. In a startling turn, Lucky, seemingly possessed herself, slaps Gracie across the face. The line between what is real and not real dissolves, and they both freeze. Afterward, Lucky apologizes and reassures Gracie that things are fine. But as she looks into the distance, it’s hard to tell if she even believes it herself.
Airdate: Friday, April 9 (Amazon)