Amazon Prime’s Them (2021) and Black Trauma, White Fear

*Spoiler Alert + Trigger Warning for sexual violence and general violence.*

“People think they want something. But they don’t.”

Tweet from Brandon David Wilson

The opening quote is a subtweet to the above both shared by Brandon David Wilson on April 10, 2021, about Them (2021), a ten-episode series that premiered on April 9, on Amazon Prime. Them, created and executive produced by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe and directors include Janicza Bravo, depicts the experience of a Black family that integrates the all-White neighborhood of Compton, CA in the 1950s. Yep, that’s right, like Flatbush in New York City and North Lawndale in Chicago, Compton was once all White due to restrictive covenants in home lending and the like, written and enforced by White people in a variety of careers, from the government to real estate and construction. For anyone questioning how true to life the depiction in Them is, about the experience of Nat King Cole and his family as they moved into the then all-White, Whites-only LA neighborhood of Hancock Park in 1948.

The series’ power lies in, as Dani Bethea states, in , “erasing the lines between an ‘us vs them’ narrative because that’s how too many [sic]white persons are let off the hook for the generational trauma and violence that white supremacy leaves behind.” In addition, anyone who reads (2017) by Richard Rothstein should watch Season 1, Episode 5. Highly critiqued and rightly so for its depiction of sexual violence and violence against a minor, it brings the text of the book about redlining to life. Please, for your mental health protection, fast-forward through the scene of several White men raping a Black woman in her North Carolina house and a White woman murdering the Black woman’s infant in the same scene at minute 15:40 to 22:10.

Poster for “Them” from .

In the leading tweet for the aforementioned subtweet, Wilson states, “Lena Waithe is trending. Mostly the ‘Black pain’ brigade whining about Black movies being too traumatic. I sometimes wonder where the drive to avoid pain and suffering in our stories will lead to.” Yes, I wonder the same.

What people aligning with the “Black Pain Brigade” fail to see is that their alignment not only is against glorifying Black pain, as they contend, but it is also aligning with a notion of revisionist history, aligning with the likes of people, including elected officials, who support banning teaching fuller histories the likes of the 1619 Project. If the Black pain brigade is not careful they will become co-conspirators in a tactic of white supremacy: the erasure of complete history that covers the comfortable and the uncomfortable, painful parts.

On Feb. 9, 2021, during Black History Month no less, Iowa Rep. Skyer Wheeler, R-Orange City, introduced (HF 222). In this piece of legislation, Rep. Wheeler proposed using the power of financial appropriation to ban schools, community colleges, and state universities from using any history curriculum from the . HF 222 states,

“A school shall not utilize any United States history curriculum that in whole or in part is derived from a project by the New York Times, known as the ‘1619 Project,’ or any similarly developed curriculum.”

Not only does the proposed legislation ban funding for the 1619 Project curriculum, but it would also ban any similar curriculum. The proposed legislation’s leading assumption is that the “1619 Project,” developed by Iowa’s own Nikole Hannah-Jones, lies about the founding of the US,

“The general assembly finds that recently developed United States history curriculum derived from a project by the New York Times, known as the ‘1619 Project,’ attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.”

The bill, if passed, would take effect July 1, 2021, and reduce funding to schools that taught the banned curriculum.

Have we had enough of seeing “Black trauma” in media — a history that depicts Black people suffering at the hands of White people?

In his viral , Chinyelu Mwaafrika from Indianapolis seems to think yes, we have. And in fact, he believes filmmakers should replace “Black pain” with “Black fantasy film with Black adventurers killing dragons.” There is also quite a bit of chatter on of Black people choosing not to watch Them. And, a White person also , “I’m not watching Them. I would recommend other White people do the same.” Yes, it is important for us to be mindful of the content we consume as we tend to our mental health.

Again, have we, our collective society, had enough of “Black trauma” or “trauma porn” as some like to say? I say no, we can have it all — films that depict Black pain and films that depict Black pain with Black triumph over the pain, and Black fantasy film. We have yet to reach a point in our country’s history where series like Them are irrelevant.

I question if those criticizing Them for not showing Black people as resilient watched it because at every turn when the Emory’s do address the White terror they experience, from Mrs. Emory’s attempt to sell their house in Compton to move away from their White neighbors and their terrorism only to learn from their White real estate agent that the house they bought has no equity, to Mr. Emory gaining the education we, Black people, are lead to believe by Black, White, and other People of Color alike, will help us to “”, and attempting to stoke camaraderie with his fellow engineers, only to be met with a cold shoulder and jealousy by his White boss, we see over and over again in this series that “White Fear” and “White Terror” are barriers to their attempts at resiliency. Although, Episode 6 of Season 1, packs a mighty punch of resilience for those who need it, pun intended. So, who is really at fault — the “Black Pain” or the “White Fear” and “White Terror”?

We have to change the narrative of the past to see the present as it really is. How? One way is to view the past through a lens of horror and trauma. Because that’s what redlining, etc. as depicted in Them was — not the American dream, but the American horror or nightmare and traumatic for us all.

In a similar vein, another tweet rightly indicts the educational system for the incomplete narrative we have — for teaching a redacted, whitewashed history. And, thanks to this tweet, I did seek Little Marvin’s explanation — glad I did, watch it .

Subtweet by @SunshineLight93 to @BritniDWrites

If one pays attention to the White people portrayed in Them, one will see that “White Flight” from neighborhoods where Black people moved into White-majority neighborhoods was actually “White Fear,” fabricated fear of the other, by real estate, banking, and other allied industries.

Most people focus on one experience in history or media, like “Black pain” or “Black trauma”. But, what would happen if more people focused on the other player in the scene: “White violence”/ “White terror”/ “White trauma”/ “White fear”? We need to see and focus on both players. We need to see the fuller story. When we focus on “Black pain” in movies and other media as the problem, we do what people do in so many areas of life — focus on the Black pain as the problem instead of focusing on the cause of the Black pain — White violence and White fear. The sentiment might mean well, wanting the full Black experience as equitable representation, but this thinking gaslights Black pain and Black trauma. And, no one wants to or should want to do that.

What’s more, calls for erasing “Black pain” or “Black trauma” will prevent us from seeing and analyzing White fear, etc. And, we need to see both Black trauma and White fear in order to heal. What Them shows us is that no one is mentally well as long as white supremacy is the prevailing code of conduct between us.

What’s on the other side of our collective trauma and fear as a result of white supremacy is so much better than what we’ve been experiencing, so much better. But, we have to shift the focus of the narrative to see the fuller history, the joy and the pain, to get there.

Watch on Amazon Prime.

unRedact The Facts of history to tell a full(er) (hi)story for racial equity + healing . Powered by a Black woman + her joy .

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store