America's History of Racial Violence Collides with Horror Tropes in Them

If you miss Lovecraft Country, Amazon has an alternative.


Them: Covenant. Available now on Amazon Prime Video.

First, let's discuss what Them: Covenant is not. Despite the name and the 1950s setting, it's got nothing to do with big ants. And even though it's about black people moving north to escape racism, only to find themselves in a haunted house, it's not the second season of HBO's Lovecraft Country.

That latter guess is rather close, though—too close, probably, for Covenant's own good. It's the second TV show in a year to use the horror genre as a tool for the exploration of the totalitarian nature of American racism in the first half of the 20th century and the epic effort it took for black people to resist. Had Covenant not languished in development hell for a couple of years after Amazon first struck a deal for it, it probably would have been first and avoided the faint whiff of been-there-done-that which clings to it.

Not that there are major differences in the two shows. Lovecraft Country used—not very successfully—its namesake's Cthulhu mythos to portray 1950s America as a malign and irrational landscape where racist violence could come boiling up, unprovoked, at any moment.

Covenant, by contrast, is a conventional haunted-house story set against the backdrop of the so-called Great Migration, during which 7 million blacks—spurred on by what they saw of the Jim Crow-free north as World Wars I and II shuffled soldiers and defense workers around the country—relocated away from the south. Livia and Henry Emory (Deborah Ayorinde of Luke Cage and Ashley Thomas of Salvation) are among them, heading along with their two young daughters from rural North Carolina to Southern California in the wake of World War II.

The Emorys are in part drawn by the post-war technology boom in Los Angeles (he's an engineer, she's a schoolteacher). But they're also fleeing some cloudy recent trauma, the details of which emerge only in drip-by-drip flashbacks at the start of each episode. Either way, their hopes of a tranquil new life are in vain. First, drawn by an inexplicably cheap house, they've elected to locate in suburban Compton.

Compton these days is known for its black street gangs and rough-and-tumble rap culture. But in 1950 it was a prim little white suburb that intended to stay that way; the only street gangs were white, working with the cops to keep would-be black homeowners out. The entire city (like much of Southern California) was enmeshed in a thicket of protective covenants.

The Supreme Court two years earlier had outlawed the housing covenant, but its presence on the Emorys' bill of sale made the neighborhood's attitude clear. And if it didn't, the line of white harpies waiting in front of the house on their first day, playing radios tuned to egregiously racist pop music, certainly made the message plain. From there, it's a short step to strangling the family dog, burning the words "NIGGER HEAVEN" into the lawn, and hanging a line of black dollies dangling from hangman's nooses on the front porch.

If the anti-welcome-wagon neighbors weren't scary enough—and they are, director Nelson Cragg has a blood-chilling talent for racist choreography—the Emorys soon discover there's something amiss with the house, which is pretty enough but comes fully equipped with banging windows, echoing footsteps and generally Amityvillian phenomenon—including, of course, a dank, underlit basement possibly populated by phantoms. (Covenant, like so many haunted-house movies, is set in pre-flashlight America.)

What makes the haunts even worse is that both Livia and Henry Emory suffer from hallucinations (he from being used as a guinea pig in U.S. Army biochemical experiments during World War II, she from that nameless trauma back in North Carolina) and it's never quite clear whether they're really seeing what they're seeing. What's beyond doubt: "There's something bad in this house," as their kindergarten-age daughter Gracie (newcomer Melody Hurd, in an outstanding performance) puts it.

Covenant is so effective at illustrating the racial ugliness of the post-war era that at times you have to wonder if it's exaggerating things. (Would a Southern California classroom really break into jungle noises the first time a black student spoke? And would a teacher really send that student to the office for "disrupting class" as a result?) But in the broad strokes, at least, the show is alarmingly truthful. White race riots, particularly when residential color lines were broken, were a depressingly common occurrence in the north during the Great Migration, in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C., and many other cities. In Chicago at one point, eight black homebuyers were bombed in three months.

The ruthless fury of white homeowners described in nonfiction accounts like Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice makes the white neighbors of Covenant seem, if anything, somewhat mild-mannered. (At least in the four episodes I watched, they didn't kill anybody or blow anything up.)  Somehow, however, their lack of true derangement makes their cold-bloodedness all the more frightening. Interestingly, creator-screenwriter Little Marvin has made the neighborhood's women the intellectual authors of the terrorism against the Emorys, hectoring and belittling their husbands for not using a harder hand.

The most frightening of them is a blonde Barbie doll named Betty (Alison Pill, who played a Manson girl in one season of American Horror Story), who in a sidewalk confrontation with Livia Emory icily warns her, "If it were me, I can't imagine living someplace I wasn't wanted." Her slight twist to the word "living" makes it sound like a temporary condition.

For all Covenant's effectiveness at depicting the insane frustration of black life in America in 1950, it still has multiple failings as a drama, particularly on the supernatural side of story. Who those underlit and underwritten ghosts are, what they want, and even what they're doing is never apparent. And at times, Little Marvin forgets he's telling a story and lapses into editorial-writing. What in hell is "Dem Niggers Ain't Playing," a ranting 1971 rap record by the Watts Prophets, doing on the soundtrack of a show set in 1950? Little Marvin's got a chilling tale to tell about the Great Migration. There's no need to junk it up with confused ghosts and anachronistic rappers.