The first season of Little Marvin’s anthology series Them explores the terror surrounding a Black American family living in a Los Angeles neighborhood during the 1950s. The series – which stars a cast comprised of actors such as Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Alison Pill, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd, and Ryan Kwanten – follows the journey of the Emorys who migrate from North Carolina to all-white East Compton following a tragedy that pushes them to seek out a fresh start in the city of dreams – or so they think. Over the course of a tumultuous 10 days, the Emorys experience a world of racial terror and malevolent, otherworldly forces that hope to taunt, threaten, and ultimately push them out of the neighborhood.
Representation for Black stories in horror has severely lacked up until recent years, and Them, executive produced by Lena Waithe, seeks to crack uncharted territory to put us at the center of what has long since been a white-dominated genre. Marvin’s creation pushes the envelope to hold a mirror up to America’s reality when it comes to how it interacts with Black families, starting with what’s supposed to be the safest space to any individual – the home. Through a lens of vulnerability, safety and psychological warfare, Them breaks down the flaws within the American Dream to speak truth to the weaponization of private spaces against Black citizens.
We spoke to Marvin and leading star Deborah Ayorinde about their thoughts on what’s so compelling about the new Amazon Studios anthology series and how it’s breaking the door down for more Black horror stories to be told.
“The story kind of came to me about three or four years ago at a time where I felt like every morning I was waking up, looking at my phone and seeing Black folks being terrorized in some way,” Little Marvin shared with us. “Either threatened, followed or harassed by the police. And it got me thinking a lot about my own experience with that kind of terror, but also a history of terror that goes all the way back to the beginning of this country.”
He adds, “It’s no secret that public spaces are weaponized against Black folks and have been since the dawn of the country. What I hadn’t seen was the tension between the public and the private space, and that most private of spaces, the home – which is supposed to be the safe space right? The world outside might be crazy but on the inside we have each other. The show began for me with a question, ‘What happens when the home turns on you too?'”
The most rewarding part for the series creator was being able to put a Black family at the center of stories he’s loved since he was a kid. “Putting a Black family at the heart of [Them] was never a question because I grew up loving domestic horror and thrillers my entire life, but we were never at the center of those stories.” Which is why when casting for the series, Marvin turned to his dynamic cast to bring his ideal characters for The Emorys to life.
Ashley Thomas – who plays patriarch Henry Emory – supported his castmate Deborah Ayorinde – who plays matriarch Lucky Emory –as they navigate the horrors of battling terror both inside and outside of their home while raising their two young daughters. When approached with the opportunity to join Marvin’s series, Ayorinde revealed that she was completely blown away by his “beautiful and poetic writing.” She explained to us that, “[Marvin] wrote Lucky with so much intention and care and honesty, I felt like it’d be an honor to play her. I felt like finally, someone who gets the experience of being a Black woman.”
In preparation for her role, Ayorinde shared that she spent time during filming – even while production was paused amid the pandemic – isolated from her family to fully embrace the experience she was slated to portray. “I really wanted to immerse myself in the experience of being other, of being “them,” and I couldn’t do that while constantly interacting with people who make me feel like I belong and loved because that’s not Lucky’s experience.”
Ayorinde felt she could equally connect with her character that migrated cross-country as she too was uprooted as a child from London to San Jose and treated as other for her thick English accent and darker skin. In terms of sparking new conversations around Black women’s presence in horror series and films, she hopes the series showcases how “Black women have to face racism, but also sexism and colorism, and any other -isms if we ft into those boxes.”
She adds, “I think a lot of times people talk about what we as Black people need, but Black women [ourselves] have very specific needs.” For her dedication and commitment to the delivering [of] near-perfection for the part, Marvin called her “my day one warrior” stating that she inspired the entire cast and crew.
Marvin’s reasoning for setting the series during the 1950s and time of The Great Migration can be attributed to his goal to explore the concept of home ownership from both Black and white perspectives. “Right around that time, sort of post-war, the booming was coming, The GI Bill was happening, and vets were getting homes,” he says. “That really built the thriving middle-class of suburban home ownership that we all think of – which for Black folks we know it was anything but a dream, in fact it was a nightmare.”
A particular line repeated in the series starkly reminds us of this nightmare that Ayorinde’s character in particular is faced with, posing the question “why live somewhere where you’re not welcome?” Marvin’s response was simply wanting to “explore this idea of people believing that they have some ownership over public or private space, I never really understood it,” he shares. “The American Dream is supposed to be for all of us – it is not owned by white people and it is not meant to be owned by white people. For me, it’s not about this Black family living amongst white people. It’s about a Black family living in the best place, with the best home, access to the best schools and jobs, and that’s something that we all want. The idea that white people kind of held those things as their own creates that tension.”
When the official trailer for the series was released online, users immediately started making comparisons to Jordan Peele’s 2019 film Us, but Marvin assured us that the series is not at all similar to what people are comparing it to. “People have to understand we’re working on these things at the same time, so none of us know [the outcome]. What I would say to anyone who hasn’t actually seen the show and has already made the leap to say this is trying to be like [something else] is that anyone who has actually sat down to watch our show has never made that comparison. The minute they know what the show is about they’re like, ‘Oops I was wrong, it’s not that at all.'”
— Prime Video (@PrimeVideo) March 22, 2021
Unlike Peele’s films, Them merges the supernatural world with the realities of racism in Jim Crow’s America to illustrate a chilling account of what happens when home is no longer a haven for safety, and instead a nonstop terror-fest that brings The Emorys’ worst fears to life. “Little Marvin goes there, the whole team [really], and I’m so grateful that we were able to because a lot of times these kinds of stories are told and they’re watered down so they’re more parable for people,” Ayorinde says of how the series pushes the limit on its content. “Every episode has moments where it’s like, ‘oh my gosh they really talked about that.'”
Despite how triggering these stories can be Marvin wholeheartedly believes that art is mean to reflect life and his only interests lie in positioning Black people’ stories front and center within these whitewashed spaces. Just as his predecessors paved the way for creators like himself, Marvin also plans to pay it forward and usher more Black actors, producers, directors and others to breathe new life into the horror genre. “Because there’s only been two or three [creations] in the last four years, that’s why we get compared,” he says. “Lena Waithe kicked the door open so that I could come through. It’s my job to turn around and open it for the next generation and flood [horror] with new stories so that those comparisons never have to be made [again].”
Overall, Marvin’s hopes for Them is to break new ground for Black people in horror to have their voices heard loud and clear. For those who have already made up their mind about the new series, Marvin encourages them to keep an open mind and watch without former expectations. “I would urge those people who think they have it figured out to actually come on the journey and be surprised by what our show does differently,” he says. “I’d also tell them that this show sparks a certain level of curiosity about the ways in which we live. These characters, because they’re so real and so human, will hopefully allow people into a journey of understanding what folks have been dealing with for years.”
Season one of Them is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.