Amazon’s Them (2021): Exploiting Black Trauma… or Not.
Defending Amazon’s Them
Robert Freeman signed away his freedom in The Boondocks (Season 4; Episode 7). Becoming a slave meant he, his grandsons – Huey and Riley, and neighbor – Tom Dubois, would reenact the Slavery Era in America in an amusement park named “Freedomland”. The park’s chief aim was to entertain its patrons with Black people’s pain, while of course making profit.
Some people might accuse Little Marvin, creator of Them (2021), of doing something similar.
Several tweets criticized the show for “exploiting Black trauma”. I thought these takes were valid, seeing how the show focused on a Black family living in an unwelcoming environment created by their White neighbors’ hostility. As Huey Freeman asked, “In modern day America, who would believe people would want to be entertained by slaves?” Bringing that question into this context, one might ask the better question, “Who would believe people would want to be entertained by a Black family experiencing intense racism?”
Is Amazon’s Them Exploitative
Before we dismiss Amazon’s Them for rubbing salt into the wound called Black Trauma, we need to examine the purposes of horror. The core goal of horror is to make us feel fear in all its subtleties – anxiety, doubt, revulsion, disgust, shock. Art, in general, ought to stir the same feelings within us. Some might consider a horror story a colossal failure if it doesn’t set off our fears, leaving us terrified, triggered, and traumatized.
I should point out this genre has been a huge part of folklore on the African continent. There are stories of witches, monsters, and a horde of other creepy crawlies. These stories were creepy, and weird songs accompanied them. Scary stories are not new to Black people. Those stories were allusions, even reminders, of the creepy things that could happen. Telling a horror story based on historical fact is not exploitation but a warning to future generations.
Amazon’s Them reminds us of who we are and where we come from
The Emory family, consisting of couple Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Livia (Deborah Ayorinde), with their two daughters, Ruby Lee (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), move into a house on 3011 Palmer Drive on September 14, 1953 in Compton, California.
They are not welcome in the neighborhood. The white neighbors think they are an aberration. Betty Wendell (Alison Pil), the neighbor living on the other side of the street goes as far as comparing them to black mold (not the first reference in a recent horror film) in a discussion at a neighborly get-together. The men are not left out: they brainstorm ways to get rid of the new family. One of them comes up with the idea of killing the Emory’s pet, Sergeant.
When Henry finds Sergeant’s corpse in the basement the following morning, Livia loses it, takes out the gun she loaded the previous night, runs out to the front lawn, and warns the neighbors.
Amazon’s Them takes us through the first 10 days of trauma and horror the Emory family experienced at Palmer Drive.
It was hard to watch some episodes. There is sexual violence. A group of white people murder a baby. A Black couple was roasted alive. A teenager resorts to self harm. A woman kills her family. I will not attempt to argue that these moments aren’t hard to watch. They are.
The performances force us to watch. The emotions were raw, compelling me to feel their feelings. As a black woman I was vicariously living (and sometimes dying) through these characters. I could not distance myself from the story. It might have been because the story is lengthy, and continuous exposure to their harrowing experience got to me.
Shahadi Joseph Wright is fantastic! I could say the same for Melody Hurd. Ashley Benson and Deborah Ayorinde have great chemistry. Thomas’s character did not key into the stereotype of a distant and unavailable black father. With Livia, we see there is no one singular femininity. Alison Pil was great as a villain. The antipathy she had towards the Emorys was palpable from across the street, and through the screen. Also, she has her own battles. Maybe the sadness and emptiness in her own life made her behave the way she did to the Emorys? Then again, sometimes people deserve to get slapped. All in all, the characters were well-rounded.
Dream a Little Dream and the music of Amazon’s Them
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” was one of the songs used in the Amazon’s Them, and I thought it was perfect. I have always thought the lyrics were similar to what a psycho would write in a Ready-Or-Not-Here-I-Come-To-Kill-You note which they are about to send to their next victim. “But in your dreams whatever they be, dream a little dream of me.”
Ending the first episode with Diana Ross’s “Home” from The Wiz (1978) made a whole lot of sense. “When I think of home, I think of place where there’s love overflowing.” Hate flowed in abundance on Palmer Drive. It goes on to show home is not merely geographical, it is also emotional. As James Baldwin put it, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
We have accomplished little in seventy years.
Personally, I thought Them (2021) was riveting and beautifully done. It tells a layered story, with several intricately woven themes. Sadly, these themes are relevant in today’s conversation on racism and all its facets. Racial prejudice is a running theme in the lives of Black people. When we come across stories that shed light on this topic, I feel we should not be eager to invalidate them. When you sign up to watch horror, brace yourself to be horrified. Horror is not a genre for the faint of heart. That most of us were triggered is proof that the show struck a nerve.
In showing us all that trauma, we confront history. A sizable number of people did not know the extent of the horrors Black people endured during the Great Migration. “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times” – Nina Simone. Amazon’s Them has done exactly so.
Watching all those scarring scenes makes one appreciate the resilience of Black people through the centuries. We have thrived in the face of situations that were designed to break our spirits. Tom Dubois said in the aforementioned episode of The Boondocks: “This is a great opportunity to go back to a noble time for Black Americans, when we overcame obstacles and struggled to be the free, fully-realized human beings we are.” There is nobility in understanding of these things happened to Black people. They continue to happen to black people. We are still here and will live wherever the hell we want.
Cisi is a freelance writer, journalist, and comic artist. She enjoys watching sunsets while sipping tea.