Amazon Prime’s new horror anthology created by Little Marvin with a team that includes "The Chi's" Lena Waithe, ‘Them’ opens with a gloriously nightmarish, sepia-toned prologue. A woman and her baby are alone in an isolated house when an innocuous old woman walks down the road towards them. She mentions that “we” saw the woman’s husband leave and begins singing about “Old Black Joe”. When she hears the baby, she brightens and asks “Can I have him? Your boy? I’d like him very, very much.” It would be chilling enough, but the fact that the woman whose baby she is demanding is black adds a historical dimension of horrors to the encounter. Shadows of slavery, babies taken from mothers, and the inescapable vulnerability – even to malevolent supernatural forces – caused by having a certain skin color in a certain country at a certain time instantly come to mind. The opening scene demonstrates the series’ greatest strength in microcosm.
The premise involves a Black family moving into the Los Angeles community of Compton in 1953 -- a period known as the Great Migration, as African Americans fled the South -- taking up residence in an all-White neighborhood that is openly aghast at their arrival.
"Them" maintains a sense of dread with eerie music and disturbing images, but the macabre component to what's happening coexists somewhat awkwardly with issues surrounding segregation, corruption, and financial exploitation.
Juggling that stew of material, the series manages to be bracing and uncomfortable and still feel uneven. That's a byproduct, perhaps, of employing the limited-series format as opposed to a movie, as the individual episodes move briskly enough (several run less than 40 minutes), but the overall story feels stretched out in the middle, then rushed at the end.
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.
It's understandable why horror has become a popular genre when it comes to examining the injustices of the past. As CNN's Brandon Tensley noted, there's a long history of that on screen, but "Get Out's" success revived the practice and emboldened studios, with several other examples, such as the movie "Antebellum," in the few years since.
"Them" carves out its place in that continuum, presenting an unflinching view of hatred and fear, with violence as a brutal consequence. Yet the net effect underscores the challenge of wedding sobering reality and horror conventions, in a way that's intriguing but less than fully satisfying.
Like other recent racism-based 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.
Final Score – [7/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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