I am, by nature, opinionated. Right or wrong, when it comes to politics, art, socioeconomic, religion (or lack thereof) and, of course, films, I have a definite point-of-view and I’m not afraid to express it. Which, in terms of a review, is not necessarily a bad thing, except on those rare occasions when I’m not sure whether I should recommend a horror film/series because I’m not sure how I feel about it…or even qualified to review it at all.
Hence, my ambivalence about writing what will probably be a slightly contradictory take on Amazon Prime’s new series, Them.
First, I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class (culturally, at least) woman. I’ve never experience racism in my entire privileged life. I can tell you about the negative impact of misogyny. I know all too well the devastation of a violent childhood and the almost inevitable consequential soul-crushing abusive relationships. For a brief time, I even know what being a poor single mother is like–to this day, I can’t even look at a package of ramen noodles because of a brief period of my life when it was all I could afford to eat for weeks at a time. But the racism that a black man, woman or child faces every day? Despite all of my best intentions, all of my conscious striving to understand, I honestly don’t have a clue. Even if I turned black overnight, I would incapable of grasping the pain and injustice members of the black community must regularly endure.
So, in light of all that, who the hell am I to review a series that is based entirely upon the horrors–both literally and figuratively–of racism? When a cop pulls me over, the worst thing that’s going to happen is that I’ll get a ticket, how could I possibly be qualified to review Them, much less criticize it? Especially when I believe that it sometimes veers into straight-up exploitation.
Them is a sad example of a fantastic premise falling short of expectations. On paper, Them has all of the advantages necessary to create something truly great: perfect casting, powerhouse performances, appropriately spooky atmosphere..including acceptably creepy ghoulies. And the premise was brilliant–using metaphorical horror in tandem with the real-life horror of racism. After a horrific tragedy, Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), his troubled wife, Lucky (an electrifying Deborah Ayorinde) and their two daughters Ruby and Grace, leave North Carolina and join thousands of other black Southerners during the Second Great Migration of the 1940s and early 1950s, in the hopes of escaping Jim Crow laws, overt bigotry and the very real threat of violence, only to find that racism is just as endemic in California…or at least when they have the utter gall to move into all-white east Compton and suffer the relentless wrath of their neighbors…nor have they escaped the demons of their tragic past represented by actual demon-demons While it is impossible for me to understand how demoralizing it must be to escape the fire and jump headlong into the frying pan, I have seen evidence that bigotry is hardly limited to the South…though, by the 90s, most white people who lived in other regions learned not to announce their racism; they whisper it, instead (“Oh my god, never drive through that part of town. *sotto voce voice* It’s pretty much a ghetto” ie mostly black).
Unlike a few (white) critics who complained about the graphic violence as being unnecessary and “over-the-top”, not only did the violence not offend me, I know that every brutal scene is based on separate, actual events. Think dozens of hostile white neighbors sitting in front of black family’s house to taunt and intimidate them is too Stepford-wife-esque? Check out that infamous photo a mob of ugly white grown ups screaming vile slurs and death threats at Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a heretofore all-white elementary school. If you’re offended by the harrowing, almost-impossible-to-watch flashback of the horrific event they are desperately trying to leave behind, then I don’t recommend you google “Emmett Till” and see the gruesome, heartbreaking image of what a trio of white men did to a 15 year old boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Not a single event is unrealistic; far, far worse has been done to black people for centuries. In fact, had they presented these attacks with greater subtlety, that would be unrealistic.
But that isn’t the problem.
The problem is the relentlessness of the violence–even though it is more than possible that black families moving into all-white neighborhoods experienced every single one of the horrors portrayed by the Emorys. Despite the very best intentions in the world, it is human nature to become desensitized when confronted with a constant barrage of violent imagery. trivializes its horror. It causes a numbing effect even on well-meaning liberals and it gives bigots the excuse to dismiss all of it as being unrealistic. Worse, by constantly presenting the Emorys as only enduring constant abuse and degradation, it dehumanizes the characters by turning them into victims instead of actual people capable of experiencing more than rage, grief and shame. Despite some of the best performances I’ve seen this year, the players simply cannot overcome a flawed script. I read that Dennis Hopper constantly tangled with David Lynch over the character of Frank Booth in the fucked-up masterpiece Blue Velvet. He felt that his performance was nothing more than “one long scream”. Lynch was right. Under his direction, Dennis Hopper turned Frank Booth into an iconic villain…in a movie that had very little to do with real life anywhere except within the opaque realm of David Lynch…and only within the realm of Lynch. Otherwise, one long scream deadens the pain and dehumanizes the characters…and the performers here deserve far, far better.
About halfway through the series, something else was nagging at me; it wasn’t just the constant barrage of violence I found troubling, but I couldn’t quite name what the crux of the problem was. I decided to read some of the reviews–which I try to avoid, because so many modern reviewers spoil the movies they critique. Most of the reviews were positive or at least averaging out to a solid B+…that is, the white reviewers, most of whom are as privileged (at least) as I am and naturally have the same huge blind spots about the every day struggle of members of the black community. The only scathing reviews I read were from black reviewers, who pointed out something I missed: the practice of using black trauma as a means of entertainment, ie “black trauma porn”, or, as one reviewer put it, “fetishisizing the suffering of African-Americans”. What I missed was how Them, despite its wonderful premise and gifted actors, began to remind me of a modern-day coliseum filled with drool-lipped white spectators watching black gladiators suffer and die for sport.
While I would never presume to tell black creators how to present the outrage and tragedy of violent racism, I think it is an indisputable fact that the late, great Toni Morrison could…and she did not spare the reader from scenes of unimaginable brutality. In her novel Beloved, the protagonist Sethe has suffered from so many acts of sadistic abuse, you understand why she would murder her child to spare her a lifetime of atrocities more brutal than even my dark mind could imagine. And yet Beloved is never bleak; it is as beautiful as it is horrific. When asked about it, Ms. Morrison explained that unspeakable acts must be told “in a quiet voice”. When she struggled with an especially traumatic scene, she would go walk beside the Ohio river until she could find her quiet voice…and that quietude somehow made truly harrowing scenes even more profound, rather than lurid and exploitative. More importantly, she never let you forget the humanity of her characters. They may have experienced devastating trauma, but they weren’t defined by it. They were still capable of humor, intimacy, joy and dignified defiance, best exemplified by the inspirational sermon given by de facto minister, Baby Suggs, in which she tells a circle of escaped slaves how important it is to love every part of themselves to make up for the hatred of “them over yonder”…and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve never gotten through that passage with dry eyes. She reaffirms their humanity, preaches self-love as self-defense and dares them to heal…which makes it all the more terrifying when Sethe’s former sick bastard owner finds her. And all the more moving when, despite it all, she begins to heal.
But you don’t have to be Toni Morrison–clearly, She is God–to portray victimized characters as more than victims.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not in the “can’t we move past this?” camp. On the contrary, I’m more concerned about politicians literally white-washing historical atrocities gaslighting another generation into trivializing or ignoring these atrocities. And I certainly recognize that there is a hair-width line dividing expression and exploitation. Ironically, the most complex, terrifying and fascinating character is a black-faced minstrel trickster called Da Tap Dance Man. Da Tap Dance Man is a grotesque, crudely painted, coal-eyed caricature, an unholy cross between a more cunning Pennywise and the exaggerated bent-back obsequiousness of Step n’ Fetchit, disguising his intentions behind a literal grinning mask.But instead of playing the fool to slyly manipulate his white oppressors, he weaponizes that trickery against Henry, mocking Henry’s feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-loathing and barely repressed rage and inciting him to commit ruinous acts of violence against those oppressors. I only wish that Da Tap Dance Man would return for the second season, because even amongst this outstanding cast, Jeremiah Birkett shines. His Tap Dance Man is far more terrifying than the other three somewhat lackluster demons combined. In a larger role, Da Tap Dance Man has the potential to become a truly iconic trickster-villain.
And yes, there is already a second season in the works, though my understanding is that each season will feature a different family; alas, we may have seen the end of Da Tap Dance Man. While each season is planned to be stand-alone, it isn’t clear whether the family will also be black or from another ethnicity (I heard possibly Latino, but I can’t find definitive confirmation). Them is blessed with a wealth of talent and potential…hopefully the writers and director will find the balance needed to create minority characters being terrorized by horrors of hatred (and hateful entities), while also celebrating their culture, dignity, humor and strength.
Preferably in a quiet voice.