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SXSW Review: Episodes 1 and 2 of “Them” Show Promise

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 24th, 2021

Series poster: “Them”

Them (Little Marvin, creator; Nelson Cragg, director, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Premiering April 9 on Amazon Prime, the 10-part series Them explores the horrors of 1950s America through the eyes of a Black family moving into a white neighborhood. The Emorys leave Jim Crow-era North Carolina to relocate to the West Coast … Compton, California, to be exact, which at that time was almost exclusively white. Though the current residents react poorly to the new arrivals (to say the least), the Emorys do their best to make themselves at home. Unfortunately, forces both real and supernatural work against them. As in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, also set in the 1950s, the real monsters are the racist folks attacking our protagonists, ghosts notwithstanding.

A number of opening title cards, following a vivid prologue, explain the how and the why of the 1916-1970 “Great Migration,” during which approximately 6 million African Americans left the South for better opportunities in places that had less strict, or nonexistent, segregationist laws, rules and regulations. Of course, the first thing the Emorys discover when they arrive is that the deed to their house has a “no Negroes” clause in it. Their real-estate agent assures them that it is not enforceable. Still, it’s a rough greeting. As inauspicious a start as that may, however, it quickly becomes trivial next to the open hostility of the neighbors, led by Betty Wendell, who worries that now everyone’s property values will drop.

l-r: Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas in THEM ©Amazon Studios

Indeed, even as the narrative turns mystical, spirits invading suburbia, the primary focus here is on America’s history of redlining and disenfranchisement of people of color from home ownership. The series might actually be even more effective if it did not state, via that introductory text, exactly what its intentions are, but beyond this exposition, what transpires in the two episodes I saw at SXSW – “Day 1” and “Day 3” – shows promise for a rousing examination of racism and its lasting consequences. From home to school to work, there is no escape from prejudice for the Emorys.

They are four plus a furry critter: mother Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), father Henry (Ashley Thomas), older daughter Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph), youngest Gracie (Melody Hurd) and little dog Sergeant. It’s hard not to initially imagine parallels between this series and Jordan Peele’s 2019 Us, given the presence of Ms. Joseph in that film, as well, but though both works discuss issues of identity within a horror setting, they otherwise do not much overlap (though “Us and Them” has a nice ring to it). Through flashbacks, we learn about the Emorys’ life in North Carolina, laying the groundwork for what they are now prepared to handle.

Shahadi Wright Joseph in THEM ©Amazon Studios

And it’s a lot. Wendell (Alison Pill) will not stop until the Emorys leave, no matter how she makes it happen. At his new job, Henry finds himself treated as less than the engineer he has trained to be. At school, Ruby endures her classmates prancing around like apes in imitation of how they see her. At home, Lucky and Gracie encounter a ghost straight out of the young girl’s white-centered textbook, haunting the basement. That’s where things stand by the end of the second episode. Shot well and with fine performances, it bears watching, even as it hits its main points with an occasionally too broad brush. There’s time for whatever method there is to reveal itself more. I will definitely continue.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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