Film director Jordan Peele set the tone for modern African American horror and suspense stories. The genre is an interesting concept, yet it signifies an extremely significant shift in the portrayal of trauma experienced by Black people, albeit presented allegorically. But when does it become too much?
“Them” is situated underneath Hollywood’s idea of telling Black stories through constant traumatizing displays of race relations, even though sharing the Black experience in such a way isn’t beneficial.
The show is an anthology series that takes place during the Great Migration period. When Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas, “NYPD Blue”) gets a new job as an engineer on the West Coast, he and his wife Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde, “Always and Forever) and their two daughters, Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph, “The Lion King) and Gracie (Melody Hurd, “Battle at Big Rock”) relocate from rural North Carolina to an all-white neighborhood in Compton, Calif. While the neighborhood looks welcoming at first, the family members’ new neighbors soon target the Emory family with violent racism. Additionally, the family must battle the supernatural forces within their own home.
“Them” truly illustrates what it means to navigate life during the Jim Crow era as a Black American. The show’s portrayal of these incidents is sure to leave viewers startled. In most cases, entertainment tends to shy away from history, preferring to focus on unnecessary details and tropes that distract the viewer from the point.
However, there is a major difference between teaching and sharing stories of the Black experience in a historical format and sharing stories of the Black experience in a gratuitously violent manner. The series includes some of the most violent acts against the Emorys to the point where, at times, it’s extremely difficult to watch. Granted, there’s a lot to touch on in terms of the show’s sensitive subject matter, but a series that tries to talk about trauma within Black history should have used fewer graphic scenes and emphasized more of the real history that occurred. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the topic, but portraying the scenarios differently would have been more effective in regard to the viewer’s overall perception.
The addition of the supernatural and fantasy tropes, like the creepy ghost lady who randomly attacks Gracie in the first episode, is pointless, considering it doesn’t really add much to the plot. It seemed like the creators simply did not know which route to take for this series; they tried far too hard to make the series fit the horror/sci-fi drama genre.
Despite the negatives, the show is mostly accurate in terms of depicting the Black experience. In one episode, the real estate brokers discuss how they’re planning to charge Black families high-interest loans and sell their homes for double the price that they paid for. As a direct result, the audience is able to fully conceptualize the collective experience in a way that portrays the deeper systemic issues that Black Americans face. Viewers are able to visually comprehend the extent of the injustice and systematic racism that the Black community faces.
Hollywood should realize that Black stories are able to be told without unbearable and unsettling violence. To constantly reinforce this narrative in this way does nothing but make it hard for the audience to stomach.
The series is a lot to digest. The complexity of racist neighbors, co-workers, classmates and malevolent spirits makes this show deeply disturbing. Black trauma is something that shouldn’t be consumed for entertainment and especially not in excessive and exploitative amounts. Unfortunately, “Them” does just that.
Daily Arts Writer Jessica Curney can be reached at email@example.com.