By Alan Champion
“Racism says more about its subjugators’ pathological state than those they subjugate…”
Them, a well-scripted, directed and acted, hyperbolic, dramatic series, which captures the insufferable causatum of systemic racial prejudice, distrust, and unwarranted/misconceived fear, is by far one of the most poignant, controversial, and provocative television series, ever, and it’s an Amazon production, on Amazon.
Them, not only vividly/piercingly depicts the daily, abhorrent racism blacks are unremittingly subjected to by predisposed, jaundiced white folk, but concomitantly, provides it within a historic/chronological framework/context – from slave’s Emancipation-Reconstruction-to-present day vicissitudes. Albeit, a 10-part, episodic television series, its valiant, producers, writers and actors, might’ve jeopardized and risked having their careers impeded or eclipsed, due to Them’s bitingly caustic, indictment, harsh candor and censoring of its Caucasoid perpetrators, alongside, reactionary, black’s mercurial violability/volatility, which, can mirror those of insurrectionist, Nat Turner, and his abominable plight/resolution to obliterate some 46 demonic, slave holders and their families, 190 years ago, but they, valiantly give it their all, as its powerful subject matter must resonate for them… Them, also, uncovers the causatum impact of white hysteria, prejudice and bigotry, which, can render its perpetrators/oppressors’ enfeebled, self-loathing and/or corybantic in their attempt to immortalize racial hatred.
The protagonists and headliners in Them are an, sprightly, upwardly mobile, African American family, who recently moved into Compton – an exclusionary, white enclave following the atrocious murder of their infant son back home in the south – and of course, the combative, antagonists are vehement/vitriolic, whites within their insular/cloistered, upper-middle class community, alongside demoniacal/fiendish apparitions and specters. Similar to its heartbreaking and/or poignant precursors, – whereupon, protagonists confront, circumvent and/or vanquish adversities by either relying on and corroborating with the preternatural or by depending on their own, God-given, might and sapience – Daniel Petrie’s 1961 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, wherein, an African American family, (the “Younger’s”) – with virtuosos portrayals by Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee, Diana Sands as Beneatha, Claudia McNeil as Lena Younger (“Mama”), Rudy Dee as Ruth Younger, and Glynn Turman as Travis Younger – living in South Side Chicago, uses the insurance money, bequeathed “Mama,” Lena Younger, the family’s matriarch, by her late husband to move into the white suburbs of Clybourne Park, whereupon, they encounter deleterious/jaundiced racism and prejudice, but remain indomitable/obdurate in staying put in their new home.
Don Siegel’s 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wherein, the small town of Santa Mira, California is infiltrated by humongous seed-pods from out of space, which, surreptitiously, mutate and replicate into doppelgängers of the town’s denizens, when, they sleep. Discovered by Dr. Bennell, portrayed by Kevin McCarthy and his girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, characterized by Dana Wynter, they try to escape the nightmarish scourge, but Becky falls to sleep, giving life to her doppelgänger cyborg, but Dr. Bennell escapes, and forewarns police in a neighboring town, who remain skeptical and discrediting, but when another officer discloses that he encountered trucks with otherworldly, humongous seed-pods, they react.
Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives, wherein, Fairfield County’s town of Stepford in Connecticut, entire female population has been turned into mollifying, surfeiting cyborgs or zombies, and when, recent transplants, Joanna Eberhart, portrayed by Katharine Ross and Walter Eberhart, incarnated by Peter Masterson, and Joanna’s best friend, Bobbie Markowe, portrayed by Paula Prentiss, discover the ensuing sinister phantasmagoria, its all, but too late as Bobbie, eventually, finds the phenomena attractive, and wants in on the action. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, whereupon, Ofelia, portrayed by Ivana Baquero, finds a fantastical, preternaturalist escape/sphere – from her father’s recent passing, and the encroachment of the bloodbath between a totalitarian, Spanish, Army Captain, Vidal, adeptly portrayed by Sergi Lopez, and his regiment, who are assigned to root out post-Civil War, remnants of royalist resistance – in the form of wraiths, apparitions and specters, who convince her that she’s a lost princess, Moanna, and that her bereaving kingdom awaits her miraculous return, home. Her belief in the fantasy world is what protects her from the vagaries of her real life. Vidal and the mythical phantasm are but allegorical villains to accentuate the evil and threats of Fascism.
Jordan Peele’s, engrossing, Get Out, whereby its protagonists, Chris Washington, portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya, and his girlfriend, Rose Armitage, characterized by Allison Williams, spend a weekend at her family’s compound, but things go awry and abysmal with antagonists vying for Chris’ body parts. Chris succeeds in killing off the entire Armitage family, and is rescued by his friend, Rod, who works for TSA; and Peele’s Us, a 2019 American supernatural psychological horror film, whereon, Adelaide and Gabe Wilson and their children, Zora and Jason, portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, respectively, decide to vacation in Santa Cruz Beach, wherein, unearthed, doppelgänger/clones – led by the conniving, Red – set upon undoing their counterparts, attempt to take control of the earth. Formidable, maligning embroilments ensue, but only to reveal, at the film’s conclusion, that Red is actually, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, the protagonist of Us. Like, its precursors, Them, brims in phantasmagorical apparitions/wraiths, which, are symbolical and representative of its characters’ unconscious and antipodean nemeses.
The Guardian’s critique on Peele’s Get Out, is readily apt for Them. “The villains here aren’t southern rednecks or neo-Nazi skinheads, or the so-called ‘alt-right’. They’re middle-class white liberals. The kind of people who read this website. The kind of people who shop at Trader Joe’s, donate to the ACLU and would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.” ~ Wikipedia
Them tackles a plethora of issues, tantamount to: raciality, sexism, white entitlement, casteism, homophobia and vigilantism, but within a phantasmagorical, preternatural backdrop/sphere – one surmises, to lessen its vicissitudinous blood/gory dystopianism – with, ghastly, whey-faced/cadaverish, monstrosities or imaginary provocateurs, akin to: The Black Hat Man, an evil, relic of hate and religiosity; Da Tap Dance Man – an acrimonious/denigrating, vaudevillian, black buffoon in black face; Miss Vera, a sinister sorceress/hag of a woman; and Doris, the “impeccable, high schooler, with alabaster skin tones, cerulean eyes, and golden tresses,” but whose, but a phantasm in disguise, alongside the Emory’s, who are, unwittingly, gradually sinking into bedlam/derangement as a causatum of their jaundiced neighbors, who steadfastly coerce and subject them to a litany of injustices, but who assiduously, tried and failed, miserably, to outmaneuver, outwit, and thwart the barrage of disenfranchising oppression, vehemence and transgression, their white neighbors, furtively, subject them to – and who also, further, incite and induce the Emory’s murderous quandaries and psychologic dissonance, whereby they are continuously confronted with the conscious choice of either reacting to racial prejudice, civilly, or heeding their subliminal self’s primal instincts to manumit/release their, sublimated, aggression, and desire to eradicate their jaundice perpetrators – thus, delineating, the plight of every black person from their first breath… – and underscoring just how surreal, otherworldly, absurd and comically tragic this thing we call “Racism” is… Hence, Them, adeptly coalesces/melds drama, horror, familial, religiosity, psychopathy, supernatural and sci-fi genres. Perchance, the first of its archetype – in terms of its hyperbolic, serial dramatization, with, “fly-on-the-wall,” veritable content, making for a contemporary, straightforward, in-your-face, with, no holds barred series.
Them poses centuries-old, questions, which every black person has encountered/confronted at some time in their lives – “To Be Or Not To Be,” as Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, bemused – yet, he was a prince, and white, with ascendancy, while, blacks are, but 13.4% of the entire American population – yet, they lead the nation in infant mortality, mental illness, and heart, respiratory, diabetic disorders – with 16.3%, below the poverty level – the shares of Blacks and Hispanics in poverty are approximately twice their share in the general population – and even though, blacks choose to “Be,” – they want to be under entirely different circumstances; hence, the foremost question is, “Is violence and retaliation their only recourse or will they become their own, unwitting victims – annihilating their offspring, inciting havoc/pandemonium, and ending up in Psychiatric wards, while, perpetuating, “Black-on-Black,” crime?
Them works on most levels, but there are some that it doesn’t quite hold – tantamount to Episode #9, which, detours from the others in a somewhat of a daring, if, incongruous, manner – except, for in its content/contexture – it provides a riveting flashback, which, accentuates, how The Black Hat Man, evolved into the monstrous, blasphemous/sacrilegious specter, he became, today, alongside his covenant with prophetic phantasms/thaumaturgists, to avenge the loss of his former home, Avalon, due to a black couple’s intrusion. Shot in black and white – and abruptly, departing from the chromaticity found its other episodes, it also portrays Reconstruction and the Great Migration as a backdrop to The Black Hat Man’s evolutionary sojourn. What’s more, its modish, Non-Diegetic music doesn’t always work, either, but it does serve to integrate/synergize the past with the present, in terms of racial prejudice; hence, underscoring that, perhaps a different milieu, but with the same ole, song, dance and score.
Unpropitiously, Them’s ending is anticlimactic – a tad bit, convoluted, and over-the-top, with everyone – whites and blacks – blameworthy of perpetuating dystopic, chaotic pandemonium with indicting/accusatory doppelgängers; deleterious white mobs; and the Emory’s trying their best to outwit and outmaneuver its ghastly milieu; nonetheless, it resounds in accentuating Nat Turner’s dilemma and murderous binge – which took place some,140 years ago – raising the question, “Has anything really changed? ” Demons, doppelgängers, a degrading/parodying, vaudevillian, buffoonish half-wit, and Miss Vera, alongside a riotous gang of white vigilantes set upon annihilating the Emory’s, who in turn, retaliate against them – things can get a bit circuitous, and complicated; however, Them’s synthesis/resolution is one of trusting in and empowering oneself, and of refusing to heed societal traps, dissimulation and masquerades.
Yet, Little Marvin’s goes overboard, and a bit too far in his attempt or itch to culminate the closing scene of Them, by infusing and injecting it with eleventh minute, copious, explanatory flashback to substantiate/corroborate, present day vicissitudes, engendering a finale/denouement that’s overstated, exaggerated, over-the-top, and somewhat convoluted, while, forgetting that sometimes, a little is just enough or that, too much can dilute/obscure – rendering almost anything, indecipherable and confusing.
While, Them compresses, the Emory’s initial 10-days in Compton’s nightmarish, milieu/phantasmagoria – symbolical and representational of the 365 days a year, and for, perhaps 75-90 years in a lifetime, that blacks endure the abhorrent slings of raciality and prejudice in America, the Emory clan, propitiously, finds requisite strength and fortitude within itself, thus, exorcising and eclipsing its grisly, demonic apparitions and specters by cognizing that love will get them through whatever calamity, and reviviscent, exclaim, “We got this!” as they face-off with a choleric and orey-eyed mobs, surrounding their burning property. Them’s leitmotif or central premise is that racism is external to its victims/martyrs’, and that they must expel/exorcise it from their consciousness, before it infiltrates, eviscerates and ensnares them; alternatively, they can either flee it or stay put, and fight it as Nat Turner opted to.
Yet, its prophetic, concluding song, To Be Young, Gifted And Black, by the effusive, Ms. Nina Simone, might’ve been better served by Ms. Esther Satterfield’s, As Long As We’re Together: “…What is there to fear from the darkness that surrounds us; I don’t really know the way, but that’s O.K., as long as we’re together, we’ll always find daylight ahead. The family’s strong, we’ll learned to help each other, I am not afraid to try most anything as long as we’re together. Each new day can only be fine… The family is strong, we’ve learned to help each other. I am not afraid to try most anything as long as we’re together. Each new day can only be fine; each, new day can only be fine… ” ~ featuring, Ms. Esther Satterfield on Chuck Mangione’s, Land of Make Believe.
Them boasts a phenomenal cast, with Ashley Thomas characterizing, Henry Emory, the Emory family’s patriarch, who albeit, a first-class, Engineer, continuously confronts his self-induced, ambivalence and self-doubt, especially, on the job, due his inimically, acrimonious, white manager, while, concomitantly, witnessing his family subjected to the anathema of their white neighbors; Deborah Ayorinde, who portrays, Livia ‘Lucky’ Emory – a mother in distress, due to the murder of her newborn in the southern town they eschewed, and who watches as her two daughters and husband – who served in the U.S. military, and was a victim of Agent Orange, which, nearly sent him over the bend – become victims of an array of prejudicial onslaughts at school and on the job – where, the girls are indoctrinated to disdain their ethnicity, and he placates/propitiates his jaundiced boss as his manhood steadily erode – as she attempts to counteract/thwart the omnipresent vituperation with vilification, regardless its penalties/retributions, as her sanity is gradually imploding.
Ruby Emory, their pubertal daughter, who is portrayed by Shahadi Wright Joseph – the only black student in her middle school, where she’s been continuously denigrated, and perceived as a shrieking ape, in retaliation to her answering her teacher’s inquiry, correctly, about a poem written by Emily Dickinson. Yet, Rudy desires nothing more, than, to be white – a ruinous remnant of insufferable inculcation/propagandization that black skin pigment is repugnant/repellent – which evinces when she, audaciously, paints her entire body white, and attends the annual barn fire, signaling the start of the football season, in white face; and the darling of the entire show, Melody Hurd, a phenomenally talented/virtuosic, young actress, who portrays Gracie Emory – a precocious prodigy/wunderkind, whose apperceptive, discerning and obdurate, and an absolute joy to watch, as she attempts in her own, small way to safeguard and keep her family together and sane. Gracie is the first of the Emory’s to be trespassed by the grisly, specters, The Black Hat Man and Miss Vera, two, nefarious, deleterious forces, that’s, successfully, upended every black family unlucky enough to move into the white, pristine, sequestered community of Compton in Los Angeles, California; and lastly, there’s Alison Pill, who convincingly portrays/characterizes Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Wendell, the precipitate, hotheaded, compulsive and irrestrainable, contemporized, white, “Karen,” who’s driven corybantic by her own, jaundiced predisposition, fears, hatred, and unsubstantiated belief that the Emory’s are just the tip of an iceberg, wherein, blacks will, en mass, infiltrate/intrude upon her insular neighborhood, and turn it into a slum, rife in crime, drugs and threatening thugs.
Them brainchild of writer and producer, Little Marvin – a production of Hillman Grad, Sony Pictures Television and Vertigo Entertainment – who brings uncanny creativity and insight to this visceral, evocative series, which, acerbically/caustically indicts, incinerates and eviscerates whites, while, depicting blacks as reactionary, vulnerable protagonists, while, ingeniously, interfacing it with beguiling, absorbing, entertainment, and a harsh, yet, propitious, universal premise and theme, that “ism’s” mean “bygone/erstwhile…” Little Marvin’s acuity, sagacity and talent enables him to imbue Them with just enough diversion/divertissement, via, its veering off into the supernatural, to make it grippingly, sufferable, while, intriguing, spellbinding, thought-provoking and watchable.
Its insightful/enlightened directors – Nelson Cragg (4 episodes), Craig William Macneill (2 episodes, Ti West (2 episodes), Janicza Bravo (1 episode), and Daniel Stamm (1 episode), collectively, astutely coalesces several genres, and their inherent quintessences to make for a series that’s stupefying, formidable, prophetic, and jocularly entertaining, escapism. Their use of cinematic close-ups, Non-Diegetic, 1950’s-80’s soul and R&B music, within, a contrastive, farfetched fantasy – albeit, born out of reality – makes for a captivating, newfangled, pioneering, method of chronicling/storytelling – which, in turn, by imbuing, infusing and transfiguring conventional, prosaic narratives with their newfangled techniques, it’ll render them with neoteric flair, dynamism and energy; transmuting them into stupefying, unpredictable and spellbinding yarns.
Although, Them’s commixture and coalescence of diametric styles, genres, cinematography, lighting, and aberrant production techniques, initially, maybe confusing, they may, in fact, augment/enhance its blood and gore, horror/supernaturalist, leitmotif, propitiously, by imbuing, infusing and transfiguring conventional, prosaic storytelling to render it with a newfangled, neoteric flair, dynamism and energy – thusly, making it stupefying, unpredictable and spellbinding.
Them invariably, but valiantly confronts and addresses a reprehensibly heinous and consternating motif that has remained absent – taciturn, sublimated, censored and modulated – within the American fabric since slave ships first landed on American shores to disembark 50-60 slaves in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 – two and a half centuries, ago. Racism – its geneses and aftermath – as a leitmotiv, recently became visible/apprehensive within America’s consciousness and lexicon, when George Floyd’s (simulcast) death catapulted it into the forefront. Never before, excepting with its persecutory, Roots – a 1977 miniseries, and winner of 9 Primetime Emmy Awards – has American television approached and dramatized racism in an episodic television series – 10 sequential installments – and for that, earth-shattering, epoch-making, weighty achievement, alone, Them’s visionaries – Little Marvin and Amazon – are to be esteemed and recognized.
Them, is a timely, poignant, prophetic anecdote/apologue, which speaks brazenly/pointedly, about an enshrouded subject – Racism – innumerable American’s would like to elide and discount – and with absorbing, fundamentals of veracity…
Throw It Away
I think about the life I live
A figure made of clay
And think about the things I lost
The things I gave away
And when I’m in a certain mood
I search the house and look
One night I found these magic words
In a magic book
Throw it away
You can throw it away
Give your love, live your life
Each and every day
And keep your hand wide open
And let the sun shine through
‘Cause you can never lose a thing
If it belongs to you…
~ Abbey Lincoln