The new Amazon horror series “Them” uses the lens of horror to examine American racism, but did this specific story actually happen?
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(Below you’ll find some spoilers for “Them,” Amazon’s new horror show)
“Them,” the new horror series on Amazon Prime Video from creator Little Marvin, tells the story of a Black family from North Carolina who moves to Los Angeles in 1953 after they suffer an unimaginable tragedy. The Emorys have family out there, and they’re hoping things will be better for them out there in Southern California.
Unfortunately, troubles arises when they move into what was otherwise an all-white neighborhood in East Compton — and the white folks who live there are extremely unhappy about having Black neighbors. And so they do a lot of bad stuff to the Emorys, who also have some other literal demons to deal with since this is a horror show.
The Emorys that we see on “Them” are not real people, and this is not a true story. But it is firmly rooted in actual history. “Them” puts a horror lens on stuff like racist covenants, predatory lending, redlining — it is, in a lot of ways, a big picture examination of the shape of institutional racism in America in the 20th Century. It’s got a focus on housing in particular, but it’s certainly not limited to that topic.
As we see at the very beginning of the first episode, the Emorys’ move across the country was part of a major trend in the mid-20th Century, when millions of Black families moved out of the South and into other parts of the country. But while things may have been overall better in general in California, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still plenty of racism to go around out there.
The beginning of the fifth episode, dubbed “COVENANT I,” gives you a partial overview of the racist mid-20th Century housing situation. In this scene, a bunch of bankers discuss the way they use dramatically unfair policies to create neighborhoods full of Black people who are paying outrageous interest rates on their homes. Interest rates that are much, much higher than what the white people have to pay. The country was still a long way away from the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — though that hardly put an end to racist housing discrimination.
This scene is just part of the story. The Federal Housing Administration in the first half of the 20th Century enacted overtly racist policies with the specific goal of segregating neighborhoods and keep people of color out of white neighborhoods. Though they tried to use what they presumably thought was well-meaning language — “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities” — it’s not difficult at all to see what they were doing.
In the scene I mentioned above, we see maps of Los Angeles with the neighborhoods assigned a color based on “residential security.” Areas in red are “hazardous” — and red areas, not at all coincidentally, also represent Black neighborhoods. This is something called “redlining,” and it had a larger tangible effect than just what we see here.
That’s because that map doesn’t belong to the banks represented in this scene. It was an official government map. And the FHA would not insure mortgages for homes in the areas shaded in red. Which, in essence and function, meant Black people had (and still have) a much harder time getting mortgages than white people, and when they were able to, they paid much higher interest rates to offset the increased risk of uninsured loans.
Without insurance on the loan, the bank would issue a predatory mortgage with interest so high that the standard monthly payments won’t even cover the interest, locking them into a lifetime of debt because they’ll never be able to afford to actually pay down the loan at all unless they start making a whole lot more money. Which isn’t too likely given all the other ways American racism manifests.
And then on top of all that, the banks themselves were racist and just generally favored white people, and were happy to exploit Black folks.
The story of the Emorys on “Them” appears to actually be something a little bit different, and an example of another racist trick the banks used to pull. When Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) goes to the bank to try to get the ball rolling on selling the house because the neighbors are so racist, the woman there tells her it isn’t possible.
“It’s not a lease in the technical sense. There’s no bank mortgage, and the debt is amortized without any accrual of equity,” she tells Lucky. What the Emorys bought is a contract. The bank buys the house from another bank, keeps the deed, and then basically rents it out under awful, unforgiving terms with the promise that the family will only own it once the debt is paid in full. Which, as mentioned above, probably won’t ever happen because the terms have that same high-interest provision that is intended to prevent them from ever being able to.
And also the Emorys don’t get any of the wealth accrual benefits of owning a home, because they don’t actually own it. This is basically a rent-to-own scheme, but much worse.
On top of that, we have the covenant. In the Emorys’ agreement with the bank, there’s a pretty weird provision: “No lot in said tract shall be sold, rented or leased to any persons whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race. No persons of Negro blood or heritage shall occupy the premises, notwithstanding domestic servants actually employed by a person of the Caucasian race.”
These racist covenants were also a thing, and they were made illegal in 1948 in the court case Shelley v. Kraemer when the Supreme Court declared such nonsense as violations of the 14th Amendment, which claims to guarantee equal protection under the law. So the woman from the bank isn’t just messing with the Emorys when she says those covenants aren’t enforceable. And, yes, Compton had some of these covenants in place back in the day.
In the present, Compton is quite ethnically diverse. But, as it is on “Them,” it wasn’t always the case. In the early days of the 20th Century the town was actually an enclave of Japanese-American folks — but the government put them all in concentration camps during World War II, leaving the neighborhood mostly white.
The demographics began to change in the 1950s. To the north of Compton is Watts, already a predominantly Black neighborhood in the early 1950s. As the Black population of Los Angeles grew, some families moved into nearby West Compton. East Compton was much slower to change, and it stayed mostly white for a couple more decades.
So while “Them” is not “based on a true story” in the traditional sense, it is definitely has its basis on many, many real things that many Black people have in the past experienced and still experience to this day. Creator Little Marvin and co. crafted an original horror tale, but it’s a tale rooted in real suffering.
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