The year is 1950-something and a family is moving across America from North Carolina to LA in search of a better life. But something’s off from the moment the parents and their two young daughters arrive at their white-picket-fenced house in the glaringly white neighbourhood of Compton. Cue the real horrors of THEM, the new Amazon series created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe.
Although there are be supernatural spooks beneath the terror anthology’s surface – think Twin Peaks meets Get Out – the real malevolent force at play here is racism. The neighbourhood menace (played by Alice Pill) and her Stepford wives gang make life a living nightmare for Lucky and Henry Emory (Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas): threatening stares through windows, blaring radios outside their front door. Their hateful message is designed to intimidate and threaten the Black family they see as encroaching on ‘their’ neighbourhood.
Like Get Out, the horror in THEM isn’t just jump scares; it’s there in the poisonous, pervading experience of everyday racism, which is as destructive as anything supernatural. And the really scary thing is, it doesn’t go away when you close the screen. THEM is a specific story based in the reality of a specific time in American history, but which echoes still, seven decades on.
The Great Migration
America’s founding principles, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, come with an unwritten caveat: only if you’re white. Although slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865, the southern states enforced Jim Crow laws – named after the racist cariacture of a dancing white man in blackface – that allowed racial segregation and propagated the notion that Black people were second class citizens, which led to further sustained abuse, mistreatment and violence. These laws permitted segregated schools, workplaces transportation, bathrooms, seats in cafes and restaurants and public places, as well as empowering vote-suppressing measures that are still being unpicked (or, in the case of current Republican efforts in Georgia, furthered) today.
In 1900, it was estimated that 80 per cent of the Black population lived in the southern states, but between 1910 and 1940 a wave of migration saw several million people move to other parts of the US. They were pushed by their home states oppressive laws, and pulled by a wave of industrialisation that promised well-paid jobs in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore. Not that the transplants were welcomed unequivocally. Racial tensions and violence rose in these tightly-packed communities, as it became clear that prejudice was still high even where it wasn’t codified in statute books.
The second wave of migration and Compton’s white flight
From the mid-Forties, a slower wave of migration took Black people further west, into cities including San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles. Many settled in Compton, a suburb in southern Los Angeles.
Prior to World War II, the city of Compton, in LA county, was 95 per cent white. This is the milieu into which the Emorys in THEM arrive. A few years earlier, the US Supreme Court had struck down a law developers used to ban homeowners from selling their properties to people of specific ethnic backgrounds. Now, middle-class Black families could legally move to historically white areas, which were safer, more prosperous and had better public services thanks to preferential investment by governments and businesses. But if they could no longer be forcibly removed from those properties, locals went out of their way to encourage the new arrivals to pack up of their own accord, welcoming their neighbours with violence and vandalism.
The ban on selling property to Black people may have been legally lifted, but the practice still continued informally – Lucky Emory is shocked to read on the deeds to the house that the previous owner has stated the property is not to be sold to anybody who is Black. Estate agents also played their part in this racially-motivated panic as they pushed the idea that Black families would suppress property prices, thus encouraging sellers not to accept offers from Black buyers.
By 1910, KCET reports, “The Black population that had founded its community's vital institutions grew closer to middle-class status...homeownership amongst Blacks in Los Angeles by 1910 reached over 36 per cent – the highest rate in the nation.” Compton transitioned into an “African-American, middle-class dream where blue-collar labourers could enjoy suburbia away from the slums. These new housing developments provided better ways of life with more space for families to grow and live.”
But any comforts the new residents may have felt after all the initial hostility and violence in Compton was short-lived. As the Black population grew, white families moved out, a phenomenon dubbed ‘white flight’. As whites left, so did infrastructure investment and businesses, which sucked away jobs. Insurers charged extra fees to a population they considered riskier, based on little more than racism. Gradually, the once prosperous suburb was hollowed out. As unemployment grew, poverty levels increased, as did crime. By the Eighties, the city had developed a reputation as a ‘ghetto’, a casualty of the crack epidemic and rife with gangland violence.
Just like the Tulsa Race Massacre – a brutal attack by white mobs on a prosperous business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, dubbed the Black Wall Street, in which hundreds of people were killed – the racist structures at work in Compton once again proved that the whole system is rigged against Black people.
A supernatural demon hiding in the basement and attacking small children is one particular horror story, THEM seems to be saying. But just trying to survive and thrive in modern America as a Black person is another terrifying beast to overcome.
THEM is available on Amazon Prime Video
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