As the rising protests against police brutality have made America’s anti-Black racism difficult to ignore, Hollywood has responded by greenlighting more racial horror projects. Films and TV shows including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, and Oz Rodriguez’s Vampires vs. the Bronx have addressed anti-Black racism and systemic oppression through the lens of horror, to varying effect. In “Covenant,” the first season of Amazon’s new horror anthology Them, first-time showrunner Little Marvin explores anti-Black racism and redlining through a Black family moving to an all-white California suburb in the 1950s. As the neighborhood responds to the family’s presence, Them throws every imaginable racist act and insult at its leads, to the point where the show feels like torture for its Black characters — and also its Black viewers. Like so many attempts to explore Black trauma onscreen, it winds up as another relentless, pointless depiction of that trauma.
When Lucky and Henry Emory (Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas) relocate from North Carolina to East Compton, CA, they face the expected heavy opposition from their new neighbors. Housewife Betty Wendell (Star Trek: Picard’s Alison Pill) leads the charge, using racist intimidation tactics to get the Emorys to move. And along with the mob outside, paranormal forces inside the new home also threaten to destroy the family.
Each of the Emorys also have emotional baggage informed or exacerbated by racism. Back in North Carolina, Lucky experienced a traumatic event that’s slowly revealed in flashbacks throughout the season. Henry experiences PTSD from his time as a soldier in World War II. Their daughter Ruby (Us co-star Shahadi Wright Joseph) is bullied at her all-white high school, and develops self-esteem issues. And Gracie (Melody Hurd), their precocious youngest child, becomes a traditional horror conduit who is haunted by a faceless voice.
To Little Marvin’s credit, the show is stunning to watch. The 1950s art design is gorgeous; the neighborhood is painted with pastel colors that amplify the dissonance when Wendell and her neighbors loudly play “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” in front of the Emorys’ house. Mari-An Ceo’s costume design is incredibly stylish, staying true to the period while also differentiating between the white and Black characters’ styles, pastel twinsets vs. bright dresses. Little Marvin takes his influences from classic Hollywood films and psychological thrillers, with off-center close-ups reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick.
The soundtrack is cool and anachronistic, filled with classic R&B and soul songs now recognizable as samples from well-known rap songs. The setting of 1950s white Compton is also interesting, though the gravitas used when characters say the city’s name gets old. By the end of the show, it becomes obvious that the intended audience is viewers who find it stunning every time Betty Wendell riles up her neighbors to preserve the pureness of their community by saying, “This is Compton!”
The show’s premise helps drive the promising first two episodes, which suggest that the opening season of Them will question whether the American Dream is really attainable for Black people, à la the 1961 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, or the “Holy Ghost” episode of Lovecraft Country. Henry’s storyline also follows that theme, as he starts his new job as the first Black engineer in his department, and faces constant casual racism from his boss. That enticing narrative thread ends up jumbled within many other narratives, including the paranormal forces affecting the characters at home, and a plot thread about redlining. The many narrative threads, like the many instances of racism in the series, play like the writers were working down a checklist: They hit all the expected marks, but without integrating all the ideas into a cohesive narrative.
The actors playing the Emorys give excellent performances, infusing humanity and vulnerability into their shallowly written characters. Their performances are so good, especially Ayorinde as the fierce mother struggling with the loss of a child, that the audience can nearly overlook the series’ biggest flaw: Most of the Emorys’ actions are reactions to constant racist attacks. Apart from the traumatic event in North Carolina, the audience learns next to nothing about the characters’ lives, outside of what the white residents of Compton think of them.
While nearly every scene in the show includes some form of racism against the Emorys, the incidents themselves rarely have a solid impact. One montage cuts between close-ups of Henry brushing his teeth and the faces of golliwog dolls that the white neighbors have strung up by miniature nooses on the Emorys’ porch. After the montage, Henry steps onto the porch and is shaken by a jack-in-the-box that pops out another blackface head. The scene doesn’t land as horror — it’s just another iteration on “the neighbors are racist.” The same goes for lesser events that also feel like they came from a checklist of Black traumas, like when Lucky zones out and accidentally burns Gracie’s head with a pressing comb. Hair-straightening burn? Check.
In contrast to the emptiness of the Emorys’ characterization, Pill is given a lot to do as Betty Wendell, and she’s stunning in every one of her scenes. The series gradually reveals more and more details about Betty’s life as she stirs the community toward the cause of making Compton white again: She doesn’t feel fully supported in her marriage, she’s been having difficulties having children, she has a strained relationship with her parents, she’s been entertaining a flirtation with the milkman. She has more agency and a more detailed life than the protagonists she’s victimizing. Imagine if Lucky or Ruby had similar depth, rather than going along with whatever the plot needs of them.
And Them never lets the Emorys truly relax. Every scene is a racist incident or a reaction to one, with no relief in between. There’s never a moment where the Emorys shake their head, sigh, and utter a simple, “This is some bullshit.” An integral part of Black culture is the ability to find humor in bad situations. The old adage “laughing to keep from crying” hints at the longstanding tradition of Black people using humor as a coping tactic against the trauma and stress that comes from living in a country built on their systemic oppression. The scenes featuring the Emorys being happy are miniscule. They mostly occur early in the season, and they all end with a quick cutaway, as if too much smiling would diminish their eventual suffering.
Like other recent racial horror stories, including Lovecraft Country and the Justin Simien film Bad Hair, Them seems to argue that the outright racism perpetuated by the residents of East Compton is more insidious and threatening than the supernatural threat. While Them’s approach involves making racism a part of the supernatural terrors, the blurred lines between real-world and supernatural racism make this leadoff season confusing at times, with the supernatural elements becoming less impactful throughout the series.
Them is billed as an anthology series where each season will explore terror in America in a different way. The first season exceeds that goal. By taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the racial torture it inflicts on its characters, without giving them room to breathe or the full characterization afforded its white cast, Them is less of allegory about the plight of Black people during the Great Migration and more like 10 straight hours straight of Black trauma porn. The show may interest viewers who have a lack of empathy for Black characters. Everyone else, especially Black viewers, should maybe stay away from Them.
The entire first season of Them is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.