Writer-producer Little Marvin grew up a fan of classic horror, from Alfred Hitchcock to “The Exorcist,” but it wasn’t until he was on set at his own creation, the anthological “Them” for Amazon Prime Video, that he says he had an experience that “codified for me what moves me deeply” about genre fare.
Watching from behind a monitor as cinematographer Checco Varese set up a split diopter shot that showed Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas) smiling at the camera while his wife Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) is behind him smoking, Little Marvin remembers seeing the image freeze-frame in his mind.
“As a kid, loving all of those classic movies, folks who looked like me never populated the center of those frames,” he says. “Here’s this classic Hitchcock frame that back in the day would have only held Janet Leigh or Eva Marie Saint or Grace Kelly, and instead here’s Deborah Ayorinde in the center of the frame, looking gorgeous, dazzling and Black.”
The first season of “Them” is subtitled “Covenant” and set in the 1950s, when the Emory family moves from the South to Compton, Calif. Prior to relocating, they experience a “family tragedy,” which “creates fissures and cracks and grief and trauma within each of these characters,” Little Marvin says. Once in their new town, they endure other forms of violence and racism from their white neighbors, as well as several supernatural occurrences.
“Tananarive Due says it most eloquently, very simply: ‘Black history is horror,’” Little Marvin says, quoting the author, but “there was never any sense in my mind that I would explore a haunted country without having a haunted story.”
The supernatural horror elements the show uses feature everything from red saturation to monstrous hallucinations. The historic horror depicted includes the “cabal of forces that conspired to keep Black folks, or any minority, out while keeping some folks in.” But “as twisted and dark as our story undoubtedly is,” the producer says, by centering the Emorys in the narrative, he wanted to “write a love letter to the families of the great migration.”
“Here are Black folks that are literally scrapping and scraping, driving impossible distances, in order to escape a certain kind of terror — only to be confronted with the exact same hatred and paranoia and rage that they were trying to leave behind. I wanted to honor those families,” he says.
“Them” received a two-season order from Amazon in 2018, and a year later Little Marvin struck an overall deal with the streamer under which his production company, Odd Man Out, will create and produce additional original content. The first season of “Them” launches April 9 (the subsequent one is not yet scheduled). Already, the show has set the tone for what Little Marvin wants to deliver long-term.
Reflecting on the emotional moment he had at video village, he says, “That set a goal. I want to keep telling stories I love, but I want to show the world as it is. The lens hasn’t always caught us, but we’ve always been here.”