Want to hear a scary story? Here’s one: A family reckoning with a senseless, pervasive horror flees home to what they hope will be a place of safety and prosperity, only to find themselves pursued by that same demented presence.
Evil forces gather — their new home is haunted, too. Bloody visions terrorize them day and night. The dog is poisoned. It’s only a matter of time before the bodies start mounting.
But in the 10-part Amazon series “Them,” as in any good horror story, there is a twist: The victims are simply a middle-class Black family in the 1950s, seeking a better life in a Los Angeles suburb; the senseless horror is the racism of their white neighbors, who want them out. As the situation devolves, certain terrifying events may be supernatural, or they may be psychological.
And yet, as the series, the first season of which drops on Friday, asks: Does that distinction matter when the danger is ever-present?
“As the sinister elements outside the home ratchet up, that obviously allows for the cracks and fissures within each of them to be infiltrated by something malevolent,” the series’s creator, Little Marvin, said of the Black family at the center of “Them.” “But that malevolent thing, as sure as there is a supernatural component to our story, is deeply rooted in the emotional and psychological lives of these characters.”
It must get hard to believe your own eyes when your senses are being shocked over and over by cruelty, I said.
“Welcome to being Black,” Little Marvin replied.
Welcome, also, to the legacy of codified racism in America, which provided Little Marvin with a conceptual starting point for “Them.” Like the Jordan Peele film “Get Out” or last summer’s HBO hit “Lovecraft Country,” “Them,” which counts Lena Waithe as an executive producer, uses horror-genre conventions as allegorical octane for racist machinery that is all too real. And as “Watchmen” did for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the show is likely to educate many viewers on an ugly relic of American history that is not widely acknowledged: racially restrictive housing covenants.
If real estate legalese doesn’t sound like fodder for an edge-of-your-seat horror story, consider the implications. Just as government redlining helped create and reinforce segregation by determining who was eligible for mortgages, racial covenants did the same by restricting who was allowed to buy a property at all, finances be damned. A deed might explicitly forbid all owners, present and future, from selling the home to anyone of African or Asian descent. Many older deeds still bear such language
“Any house that was built between 1938 and 1948, in a subdivision, I would be surprised for it not to have racial restrictions in them,” said Carol M. Rose, a professor emeritus at Yale Law School who has studied racial covenants extensively. Those restrictions, Rose explained, which first appeared in the late 19th century, exploded in the early 20th century as farmlands were subdivided for large swaths of new housing
Racial covenants were notoriously common around northern cities like Detroit and Chicago — the Midwest didn’t mandate separate drinking fountains, but segregation and violence were just as real. And California was no different. A Supreme Court decision in 1948, Shelley v. Kraemer, made racial covenants no longer enforceable, creating opportunities for nonwhite families in places like Compton, Calif., where “Them” is set.
Deprived of a legal means of keeping their neighborhoods white, some racists resorted to extralegal methods, which is where the horror really begins. Sometimes the method was vandalism. Others, a Molotov cocktail.
“California is part of the story because people think that California is this sort of easy, breezy racial space, and no, it’s terrible,” said Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University who wrote “Hate Thy Neighbor,” a book about the violence faced by people in integrating neighborhoods. “It’s terrible for precisely the reasons that this series explores. The methods used in the Midwest were also used in California.”
The Emory family of “Them” flees the South as part of the Great Migration, in which, from 1916 to 1970, an estimated 6 million Black people left the region for cities of the North and West. Like them, the Emorys seek economic opportunity; the father, Henry (Ashley Thomas), is a college-educated engineer and World War II veteran, and he has relatives in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. When he lands a job out West, the family hits the road.
Read the full article at NYtimes.com