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Exploitation of Black Trauma or Reality: The Controversy of Amazon’s ‘Them’

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The idea of a horror film or show being based on a true story often peaks the interest of viewers. However, when that reality represents the lives of thousands of people, both historically and in the present day, it becomes a bit less palatable to the masses. This perception of the atrocities of real-life horror is only made more apparent with the release of Amazon Prime’s horror series “Them” on April 9. 

The series, produced and written by Little Marvin and Lena Waithe, has come under fire due to the belief that it is a haven for torture fetishists and white supremacists with the continuous portrayal of extreme and explicit anti-Black violence. Upon watching the show, it can be easily seen why this belief is so common. On the other hand, there are important notions of race and the reality of Black Americans within the series that are critical to highlight. 

The show opens with Livia “Lucky” Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) taking care of her young baby Chester when an unnamed old woman (Dale Dickey) approaches their home. She plays with the family’s dog Sarge and eerily sings “Old Black Joe,” a song created by Stephen C. Foster, whose songs were commonly used for minstrel shows and other portrayals of blackface in parlor shows. The woman hears Chester’s cry and, as Lucky attempts to get away from her, she heightens the pressure asking to take her baby from her. Viewers are not made aware of what happens to Chester at this time, as the show moves to introduce the whole of the Emory family. 

The premise of the show lies in the historical event of the Great Migration, in which Black families moved from the Jim Crow South throughout the United States. Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) is an engineer and a father who is hoping to make a new life for his family after the death of Chester; in doing so, he has undertaken the trip to Compton, Calif. 

Back then, Compton was a white suburbia, presented as a Stepford-like society in which prim and pristine white women care for their husbands, children and homes — homes that they believe will be tarnished when Black people move in. Upon their arrival, the Emorys are met with unwanted stares, particularly from one of the series’ main antagonists, Betty Wendell (Alison Pill). Her perfectly kept blond bob, beautiful dresses and ever-present smile are horrifying and work to complement her cold, unempathetic and outright evil character. She, along with the other women of the neighborhood, wake the Emorys up the following morning by blaring “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters, a song that portrays Black people as monkeys, dirty and uncivilized. 

Photo provided by THEM @ThemOnPrime/Twitter

There are shocking moments in watching the first few episodes in relation to the Emorys’ treatment in their new home. Yet, there is nothing that has not been seen in the media or even the news before. The shots are beautiful, the music well selected and often distorted to fit the emotions the creators wanted to portray. 

The realities of Black Americans are subtly portrayed and serve to highlight the day-to-day actions this community has to take to simply be safe. Ruby Lee Emory (Shahadi Wright Joseph), the oldest daughter, is mocked at her high school with students screaming monkey noises at her and parents portraying her as a breeder who is going to tarnish the white purity of their community. Gracie Jean Emory (Melody Hurd), the youngest daughter, is constantly reminded to mind her vernacular so as to not seem ignorant. Lucky cannot show her struggle with mental illness after the death of her son, as it is seen as violent and aggressive, while Henry cannot lash out at any of the micro and macro aggressions he faces on a daily basis nor confront his post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in World War II. 

Scenes of this reality were well presented and are important to demonstrate to people who do not share this lived experience. Upon reaching the fifth episode titled “Covenant I,” the line between demonstrating the realities of the Black experience in the 1950s and creating images of extreme Black violence comes into question. 

In this episode, viewers are taken back to the day of Chester’s murder in the controversial “Cat in a Bag” scene, a scene that cannot be overlooked when speaking about the purposes of the show. As Lucky hides in her home, the woman who had asked to take Chester approaches along with three other men. Lucky must listen in horrified silence as the group breaks in, only to brutally sexually assault her as her baby hides in a dresser. Upon hearing his cry, the woman takes Chester and places him into a pillowcase only to fling the innocent child around until he dies. The scene is very strong — the entire murder is shown with joyful opera music playing in the background as the evil woman and three men laugh and chant “cat in a bag.” However, the strength of this scene does not suggest that atrocities such as this murder did not occur or that they still do not occur, nor that they should be ignored and never presented. 

Many reviewers and critics alike have commented on this scene and claimed the show to be terrible because of it. This critique often does not lie in the very emotional and cruel manner it was depicted but because of claims that it is so-called “propaganda” that only serves to further the Black-white divide. Not only are these claims incredibly insensitive and ignorant, but they gloss over the critiques that the Black community has for the series, turning focus back onto the white perspective that, in respect to the appropriateness of the series, has no validity. 

Black viewers in both support and disappointment with executive producer Waithe (“Queen & Slim”) took to Twitter and other social media platforms upon the release of the series, with some commending the show’s creator for creating a raw — although difficult — depiction of the Black experience. Others noted how the series did nothing more than exploit Black trauma and pain for the sake of shock value. In addition, many Black viewers expressed how mentally taxing the series was along with desires to see other Black stories outside of the racial stage. 

It is important to acknowledge the fact that the series does present aspects that touched on other important and less spoken notions of minority experiences. Within the home, each member of the Emory family is haunted by certain figures that serve to target the aspect of their Black identity that they despise the most. Jeremiah Birkett as Da Tap Dance Man, a character in blackface and in an outfit reminiscent of the portrayal of Black people in minstrel shows and movies of the time, appears to Henry in each instance in which white men demean his work and value. He is a truly terrifying character with blacked-out demon-like eyes as he encourages Henry to fight back, to “show them crackers what they came to see, a beast.” Henry tackles having to protect his family from the community they live in while also not wanting to give into violence, as Black people are put under pressures that white people do not have to face in relation to perceived aggression. 

Ruby Lee’s Doris (Sophie Guest) is also a great addition to the show as she examines the aspect of internalized hatred and how Black women are perceived. Ruby, along with Gracie, both view their mother as aggressive and crazy, and do not particularly want to be associated with her at times, which is heightened due to Ruby’s belief that everyone sees her as an ugly Black girl. She no longer wants to be like “them.” The reality is, Black and brown women are constantly viewed as either overtly sexual and “grown,” or they are compared to men and animals the second they do not present themselves in a put-together way. Ruby and Doris’ relationship does well to portray this reality for Black women that persists today.

Photo provided by THEM @ThemOnPrime/Twitter

Ultimately, racial trauma and the relation it has to the descente into madness that the Emory family endures during the course of the 10 days they live in Compton is an aspect that is nearly impossible to portray to communities that do not understand it. It is likely the reason why many white people found themselves angered or uncomfortable with the series and why many Black viewers found their experiences misrepresented. Scenes that can express intense and personal emotions and even recall experiences of issues with discrimination, hate and racial identity can be explained but never experienced — never felt by those who have the privilege to not understand. You can’t film the internal effect that being a racial or ethnic minority in the U.S. creates. 

It is important to acknowledge that the series is a horror series, not a historical piece. Attending to each intricacy of the race relations of the U.S. between Black and white people would be nearly impossible. 

However, one cannot deny the harmful impacts it can have on the Black community. It can continue to portray the notion that Black people are their history rather than this history simply being a part of their experience and identity. It can continue the lack of portrayal for Black joy. It can also allow white people to consider the notion that their less explicit forms of racism are not significant or even further blind them to the constant oppression that they subconsciously place on Black populations. It is a show that is not meant to make the viewer comfortable, but to spark conversation and self-reflection.

For viewers looking to delve into East Compton with the Emorys, one must understand the sheer difficulty of viewing the series. There is hate, violence, torture, murder, religious depictions and sexual assault. “Them” is not an easy watch and can be mentally taxing, especially for communities that can relate to the fear and panic associated with simply existing as a Black person. It is for those looking to understand the realities of Black Americans and for those who are simply looking for a horror series. 

Nevertheless, whether the series is made for Black viewers or if it is made to provide a conclusive portrayal of Black history is left up to debate. Only those within the community can determine the appropriateness of the series, as it relates to their experiences and history. It is up to other communities to simply listen and learn. 

Carisa DeSantos is an Arts and Entertainment Intern for the spring 2021 Quarter. She can be reached at caridesantos@gmail.com.