Amazon’s ‘Them’ Captures the Horror of American Racism With Frightful Suspense

It’s a beautiful day in the racist neighborhood at the beginning of Amazon’s new anthology series “Them.” White picket fences and pristine lawns hide horrific secrets and monsters that are not always supernatural. That’s the starting point of this latest exploration of the Black American experience through pop culture. Or at least, pop culture designed in this moment of serious national self-reflection. Creator Little Marvin and his team are essentially seeking to do two things. One is evoking the terror of racism through the experience many Black Americans had by attempting to move into white suburbia in the ‘50s, the other is constantly wink at classic horror movies. At times the show evokes both so well it can be exhausting, but not forgettable.

The narrative is set in the late 1950s as many Black Americans are migrating from the Jim Crow south to northern areas of the U.S. that are assumed to be more open. For this very reason Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) is moving with his wife Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), teenage daughter Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger daughter Gracie (Melody Hurd) to East Compton, California. The streets look dreamlike and the realtor tells the Emorys to ignore a clause in their home’s contract stipulating it can’t be sold to anyone of Black blood. But almost immediately the neighbors are less than welcoming. Led by Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), the local white housewives soon begin an intimidation campaign to drive their new neighbors out. As Henry starts his new job as an engineer at a local company, Lucky tries to hold firm against Betty and her gossiping, WASPs from hell. Then Gracie makes contact with what appears to be a malevolent force inside the house, raising the stakes with a potential threat of supernatural dimensions.

This is Marvin’s first major series and it’s pulled off with an obvious rush to catch up to recent anthology shows. But its approach also has much in common with HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” where fantasy is utilized to express ideas about America’s racist history. It never quite reaches the gothic grandeur of that show, because it’s going for an even more nostalgic spirit. Much of it tries to recreate the look of a ‘70s drive-in thriller. Split screens out of Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” are used to convey what two faces are thinking at the same time, while credit sequences look lifted from 50 years ago. Opening title cards could be from the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” You can endlessly scroll down the influences all over this show, including the way all the white women in the neighborhood look taken out of “The Stepford Wives.” Visually it’s all effective, continuing the current trend of subverting old American styles. Suddenly the Norman Rockwell America the Emorys want to be a part of is revealed as violently hateful.

Yet some of the show’s strength can also be its weakness. For much of the first half of the season, “Them” functions like a catalogue of racist behaviors. On an individual basis they can have a truly unnerving effect. When Betty and the other neighborhood women sit outside the Emory home, blasting music and wondering aloud why Lucky looks annoyed when Black people are “supposed to like music,” there’s a chilling aspect to the way the scene is shot like some “Twilight Zone” nightmare. When Ruby goes to her high school there’s suffocating tension in scenes where the other students look at her like some alien, or start jumping and hollering like apes when she tries to answer a question in class. When Lucky chases a local kid off her lawn the alpha white males of the neighborhood pay Henry a visit while he works on the roof, demanding he come down to answer for what happened as if he were some servant. At work Henry has to deal with a boss who practices a truly condescending form of racism, and that’s after on his first day the receptionist kept assuming he was a janitor. 

All these moments would work better in a shorter movie. A challenge with making every daring idea a series these days is that you then have to justify a 10-episode running span. Because “Them” makes its statement so clearly in just the first episode, the rest can feel quite repetitive. The idea here is that each episode represents a day in the two weeks the Emory’s battle it out in Compton. But it gets so pulled back and forth by its dual nature that the supernatural horror story loses impact. As in “Lovecraft Country,” the racists are much more frightening ghouls than any CGI creation. There are some good scares in the show, including a tall specter that attacks Gracie, or quieter, surreal sequences like blood suddenly emerging from the front lawn.These moments effectively make us want to keep watching, because there is a dark power in the house going back to past history. But the plot gets overshadowed by the better, human angle. The scenes with Betty and her ladies, or when the neighborhood holds meetings to figure out what to do about the Emorys are both creepy and absurd, because racism is always irrational. But sometimes “Them” can be an endurance test, and if it wants to get so brutally honest about racism it needs a tighter plot. Netflix recently released a very effective haunted house movie about Sudanese refugees, “His House,” which left a shattering impact with just an hour and forty minute story. 

“Them” can’t necessarily be called “enjoyable,” because so much of it can be truly nerve-shaking. Yet it’s a testament to how more mainstream popular entertainment is looking at the history of racism and racist attitudes head-on. For that it should be commended as well as the driven performances by the entire cast. “Them” also captures the language of prejudice well, like a scene where Betty rallies her neighbors by reminding them that whites found oil in Compton, while the Black population simply idled by taking care of the whites’ children as “Mamies.” Take away the less than stellar horror story and keep it just about the experience of a Black family moving into a quietly racist neighborhood and it would be a much more engaging tale. We don’t need too many ghosts to make these stories insightful, because American history is already a haunted, scarred affair.

Them” season one begins streaming April 9 on Amazon Prime Video.