Whom is the Amazon Prime racial-horror series Them aimed at? Not angry, dejected blacks but guilt-ridden whites — be they woke viewers or venal Hollywood producers. Them’s ten-episode narrative about the black Emory family relocating from North Carolina to Compton, Calif., in 1953 exemplifies an as-yet-unnamed genre: white exploitation.
Early on, Them’s woke phoniness is plain to see: The Emorys are introduced amid such Jim Crow–era cultural detritus as a Doris Day song sheet. This misplaced anthropological detail is intended to indict American white supremacy, but Them’s creator, who goes by the Hollywood hip-hop name Little Marvin and boasts about his fondness for horror-film tropes, uses Day perversely. In generic terms, Marvin’s Them is a freaky Millennial reboot of the 1954 monster movie Them, about predatory giant ants (as if predicting Malcolm X’s 1963 “Chickens Came Home to Roost” snark), and Day sticks out because Marvin obviously doesn’t know or respect Day’s politics (or her famous relationship with pioneering black pop artist Sly Stone, of Sly and the Family Stone). And that’s just the start of the craven antipathy and ignorance hidden inside the phenomenon of white exploitation.
Don’t confuse Them with social-justice expression. We’re witnessing a new cultural phase in which productions such as HBO’s Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, Queen & Slim, and Antebellum shamelessly combine race embarrassment and resentment.
The race tension that Hollywood and mainstream media perpetrate looks the same as the anti-war subtext of old sci-fi junk. The ’50s Them was sold as “a horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants clawing out of the earth from mile-deep catacombs!” That anti-atomic-bomb tag line, deployed to exploit post–World War II political alarm (part of the Communist-based pacifist movement), is no less laughable than Marvin’s premise — the Emory family’s confrontation with the hidden horrors of white American racism. Inspired by Obama’s post-Ferguson racial incitement, a sense of threat and liberal compassion both get twisted and trivialized as Marvin imitates the same white-guilt tactics used in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. Marvin completes the Us versus Them strategy for perpetual race antagonism.
Since mainstream media won’t recognize white exploitation for what it is, we must scrutinize and define it. Them is not what the Los Angeles Times called “trauma porn” (a topic for further study). It belongs to a trend also seen in ABC-Disney’s fetishistic race-programming, with such series as Black-ish and Mixed-ish, a craze that reached peak anxiety with the woke presenters and woke commercials at the Oscars.
Designed to appeal to white liberals, Them’s white exploitation throws the Emory family into the maelstrom of failed integration — historical neighborhood mixing that unleashes black and white nightmares. Marvin has vented his cynicism about the history of black upward mobility and white flight: “Any black person knows homeownership has been anything but a dream. Homeownership has been an absolute nightmare.” His too-glib political generalities bury social specifics in BLM pandering while his show focuses “on the emotional and psychological lives of the characters and [lets] the horror kind of bubble-up from there.”
Add to that the fashionable hysteria of Them producer Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) and co-producer Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, a long-time specialist in racial instability and white self-loathing (the 1991 play Servy N Bernice 4Ever). Them refuses whites a vicarious experience of black history. Instead, it epitomizes Hollywood’s recent turn from guilt toward liberal sadomasochism. The Emorys endure rape, murder, and supernatural taunting, their anger and assault concentrated in the hostility of white neighbor Betty (played by Alison Pill) The fact that the physically beautiful Emory actors Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas are constantly despoiled only makes their abuse more painful.
None of the Emorys’ terror is cathartic. Them suggests a monster movie without humor or a sense of victory, and that’s what differentiates white exploitation from the notorious black exploitation movies of the 1970s, Shaft, Hammer, Slaughter, Superfly ad infinitum. Those films were manufactured to appease the frustrations of post–civil rights black filmgoers, then considered “underserved” by Hollywood.
White exploitation overserves guilt-ridden white liberals, often using familiar cultural tropes to signify hipster empathy. Them’s first episode opens with Patti LaBelle’s oversung “Over the Rainbow” and ends with Diana Ross’s “Home” (emphatically not Stephanie Mills’s joyous, gospel version), but disgraces both. Marvin’s idea is to employ homeowner irony, but it’s just a phony ransacking of black culture and history.
This follows the style of HBO sub-cinema where sex, race, and pop culture are exploited darkly, as means for sensationalism. All the Emorys’ physical and psychic violence fits the academic prescription about the “brutalization of black bodies.” Little Marvin’s panic (“There is tremendous trauma trapped in this country. . . . It’s been domestic terror from the beginning!”) sounds like Al Sharpton/Benjamin Crump snake oil. Marvin doesn’t understand the healing potential of art, but it seems he sure does believe in segregation when it’s to his advantage; that’s the essence of the new white exploitation. His only way of conversing with whites is through anger, resentment, and pleas for pity.
At best, white exploitation also represents black bourgeois alarm. Both are characteristic of leisure-class dismay felt by audiences and makers who are so distant from the realities of black experience that they’ve never heard — or they forgot — horrorcore hip-hop. That minor music movement expressed the naughty license given to commercially empowered rappers. Them’s white exploitation illustrates the same decadence; only now the tables are turned. Little Marvin has reduced the history of American race relations to a Hollywood pitch meeting.