Black History is Horror

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“This ain’t Black history. It’s American history,” says writer/producer Little Marvin of his hotly anticipated Amazon Original series Them.

The 10-episode limited anthology series explores terror in America by marrying Black history with the paranormal, set in 1950s Los Angeles.

The first season centers on the Emorys, a Black family who moves from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood during the period known as The Great Migration. Their idyllic home becomes ground zero where malevolent forces, racist neighbors and otherworldly entities threaten to taunt and destroy them.

Little Marvin describes his inspiration behind the project as wanting to “explore terror because I personally have been feeling terror very much so in my bones,” amid the rise in racial tension in America following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black men and women whose violent deaths made headlines around the world.

“When I started writing this three years ago, I was waking up every single day and I was seeing videos, the same videos we’re all seeing of Black folks being terrorized, harassed, chased, watched, surveilled,” he explains. “And it got me thinking a lot about my own experiences of that gaze and the terror of being on the receiving end of that, and also the history of that gaze, which stretches back to the very dawn of this country.

“So, exploring that gaze and exploring the terror within it was really the only manifestation there was for me.”

During his tenure as a marketing executive, Little Marvin wrote the pilot script for Them, which landed him a rare two-season pickup by Amazon and an overall deal with his production company, Odd Man Out.

Starring Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Alison Pill, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd, and Ryan Kwanten, and executive produced by Emmy-winner Lena Waithe, Them deep dives into the terror that Black folks across the country are feeling due to America’s “haunted” past that is embedded in the soil of this country.

You take a bit of real-life American Black history, the great migration, and marry it with supernatural elements. Talk about the inspiration behind Them.

Little Marvin: You probably know who Tananarive Due is. She’s an Afrofuturist. She’s a professor of film and Black cinema. She kind of said it in the most succinct and beautiful way, which was Black history is horror. And I couldn’t put it better than that. That is the most apt description.

Frankly, it’s the only manifestation of this story that was ever going to come from me. I think we live in a haunted country. We are obviously haunted by much grief, by much trauma, and there is much work to be done. And so a haunted country, I think deserves haunted stories. It’s the only way my mind can access it.

And also, I really wanted to explore terror because I personally have been feeling, like I’m sure you have, and like Black folks across the country and across the world have felt terror very, very much so in my bones.

You just summed up how Episode One left me feeling – quite triggered by the horrors of racism and that “gaze” that you mentioned, and some of the other social themes that we as Black people can relate to through our shared experience in America. Talk about what the emotions were like on set after filming some of the racially charged scenes?

Little Marvin: Well, you’re reminding me, I actually have chills hearing you talk about it, frankly because it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in life. And I’m quite humbled and quite grateful for the experience because from day one, we made it our business and I certainly wanted to make it my business as showrunner to create a very safe space for dangerous things to happen.

But dangerous things can happen if we’re feeling dangerous. It’s got to be safe, and everyone has to be wrapped in love and everyone has to feel heard. And if you’re having problems with it, it’s not like, “Oh, go away.” It’s, “I need to hear this.”:

I would also say what’s interesting, what I didn’t expect was the white folks to feel something. A number of white actors would come up to me with tears in their eyes and just say, “Wow. This was tough, but my god, thank you because I needed to get beyond.”

I think there’s a tendency, especially with this era where you see photos of this time and it looks like it’s almost trapped in amber, and you forget these are actually human beings on the receiving end.

Like little Ruby Bridges who went off proudly to her first day of school to integrate at school at six or seven years old and having white folks scream invective in her face and make jokes. That was a child, right? There has always been a human being on the receiving end of that. So, I think the eye-opener for white folks on the show was like, “I needed to experience this.”

During the initial stages of developing this project, were you thinking about what white viewers would take away and how they would respond to the terrifying realities of racism and race relations in 1950’s America?

Little Marvin: I think it’s inescapable. It’s a tricky situation though because as you probably know in your own life, I don’t feel any particular want to educate white folks. It’s just like, “It ain’t my job. Go read a book.” I kind of subscribe to the school, it’s not my job to educate you.

Having said that, it’s a little schizophrenic because, at the same time, I said to Amazon, “I want all Black folks to see this and embrace this, but I also need white folks to see this because I need them to understand.”

So, it’s just tricky. I don’t want to be the educator, but my hope is that it sparks a level of curiosity about their past and about our shared past. This ain’t Black history. It’s American history, which means we both share it.

How much historical research goes into building a series like this? Did you find one particular story of a Black family during the great migration that resonated with you and you just took creative license from there?

Little Marvin: I wish there was one. The sad part is, I’m the first, as a person who created it, sort of the first benefactor of the history. I’m doing all the first digging. And I have to say, my initial reaction was a little bit ashamed. I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about our history and about what we’ve experienced.

I think that the Southern tale and the Jim Crow South kind of looms large over our story, and what’s often forgotten is that we then went to the cities of the North and the West and the East, and were treated with much of the same paranoia and hatred and rage that we experienced in the Jim Crow South.

And the extent to which that was true was actually kind of a shock for me. I think LA, particularly California, prides itself on being this sort of sunny, liberal, progressive place.

And my god, is that not only not true, I mean, we’re one of the most segregated cities on the planet period still, but it was a shock to my system to see the sort of tactics, the terror tactics that would be very much at home in the South happening in Glendale, and Pacoima, and Eagle Rock, and Santa Monica, Hancock Park.

When Nat King Cole and his family moved into Hancock Park in 1948, the people of Hancock Park loved him as a musician. He was a star. But they did not love him enough to live next door to him, and he was subjected to much of the same treatment that the Emorys experience and so did families in Chicago, and Lansing and Levittown, Pennsylvania, and Rosedale, New York. So, the sad part of it is I wish there was one family, but it wasn’t.

What would you say is the heartbeat of this tale? Are there certain themes woven into the fabric of this narrative that you’re hoping viewers take away?

Little Marvin: There are many things. I want everyone to have their own experience of this because I think they’re going to be varied. The show goes on quite a rollercoaster ride, and I suspect lots of people will have lots of opinions about where it goes.

I don’t want to rob people of that experience, but I guess what I would say is as any artist, you hope that the work at the end of the day sparks a certain level of curiosity about the way in which we live. I hope people will look a little bit deeper at the word “segregation” and realize it’s not some word from the distant past, but it’s part and parcel of the way we live today.

We’re still an incredibly segregated society. Maybe people will ask themselves, “Huh, why does it seem like all the white folks live over here and all the communities of color are over here? Is that by chance or is that by design?”

So, there’s questions around that that I hope people grapple with. But the thing is, it’s particularly around real estate. These are feelings we still feel today. I still feel like, “When they meet me, am I not going to get the place? Will I not get that loan? Why is my house getting appraised for so much lower than it should?”

These are based on decades of disenfranchisement within the real estate game. So I think, [it serves] both as a sort of an object lesson in where we’ve been, but also where do we want to go. What do we want this country to be at the end of the day?: We’re so fragmented. What’s going to win out? And I don’t have an answer for that, sadly. I wish I did.

When the series drops, will you go online and see what people are saying about it on social media – follow the hashtags related to the show on Twitter or read blog recaps?

Little Marvin: I have a very low social media imprint. I’m only on Instagram. I don’t use anything else. So, I’m going to try to keep it small. Keep it focused, but we’ll see.

And because I’m beyond curious about where this amazing series is headed, I have to get ahead of myself by asking if there’s a Season Two, is the plan to focus on a different family? Will race/racism and the paranormal be central themes throughout each season?

Little Marvin: For fear of giving away spoilers, I think the one thing I can say is that the hope of the show, even when I created it, was to put folks who had historically been at the margins of the nation’s stories dead center.

So, that’s the thing that’s going to unite every single season. It’s going to be a different story every season, but there’s always going to be someone who did not occupy the center of the frame occupying the center of the frame.

I’m a huge fan of science fiction and paranormal and have for so long wanted to see more Black people in this space – both in front of and behind the camera. With that said, is this a passion project for you?

Little Marvin: My mother would absolutely tell you yes. I was that weird kid. She says she remembers coming into the room and seeing me just watching The Stepford Wives, like obsessed with it, which totally tracks, by the way, in a way that I shouldn’t be. I was that weird kid who was always sneaking into the scary movies.

I was the kid in the library, the very popular kid who eats lunch alone in the library with It, Stephen King’s book, It. It was like a door stopper. It was like 85 pounds, and I was like 75 pounds. I would read it every single day. I was obsessed with Stephen King because he has this really amazing ability of making the outsider the hero

It’s always the outsider that’s the insider. And as a kid, a Black kid growing up in the suburbs, I always felt like on the outside. And so, I really appreciated horror for its ability to put the outsider on the inside. And so, there was never a doubt in my mind that when I finally did commit to this path that Black folks would be at the center of the story, never questioned it.

And we’re not the first to die in Them, so that’s refreshing.

Little Marvin: For as long as I am allowed to make things, we will never die first.

Is there anything about these characters and their struggle or their journey that resonates with you personally or professionally?

Little Marvin: I think they all do in a way. They were all kind of born of a very personal place. And I think at some point in my life, I’ve been each of these characters in my own way. Just pulling apart Henry and his path. I worked in corporate America for about 10 years before I decided to finally sack up and become a writer and really do it.

And [in] the second episode, Henry goes into a bathroom and shoves paper towels down his throat to stop from a rage scream. Now, did I do that in my life in corporate? No. Did I want to every f*cking day? Yes.

So, without question that feeling of he’s a guy that is ambitious and the most intellectual and the fact that he can still be made to feel smaller than, that is a distinct feeling that I think every Black person can associate with on some level, that feeling of being just brought down a peg.

And so, that story in particular resonates with me on a huge level. But they all do. I mean, I think even Shahadi’s journey, her journey of self-love, and her journey of realizing who she is and the path that she goes on was deeply personal as well.

What do you say to inquiring minds who want to know what makes Them unique compared to similar paranormal-themed series currently available via streaming apps?

Little Marvin: I think in one sense, one word that I’ve been using a lot is terror versus horror. And it’s a distinction that people might go on that journey with me or they might not. But for me, terror is something that we’ve all experienced in our lifetime, whether at the national level or the individual level.

Horror is something, supernatural horror, in particular, is something very few of us will experience. I would say if anything, it’s a terror show, and take that with whatever bags of salt necessary because horror fans are just going to be like, “I don’t care what you think, man. It’s a horror show.” So, yeah.


Them premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime Video Friday, April 9, 2021.

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