By Andréa Butler| Photos Courtesy of Amazon Studios
What makes for the perfect scary story? Is it an unseen stalker in the woods? A group of masked strangers who show up at your home unannounced? Maybe, it’s the undead on a cannibalistic rampage or a scorned teen ready to avenge themselves at prom. Perhaps, it’s even simpler. Perhaps, all you need is to magnify the horrors of real life underneath the lens of a centuries-old genre.
That’s what Amazon Prime Video’s newest limited anthology series Them: Covenant seeks to do. Dropping Friday, April 9, the 10-episode first season, created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe, takes place in the early 1950s in the then all-white, Los Angeles neighborhood of East Compton. The story follows the Emorys, a Black family who’s just fled domestic terror in North Carolina in hopes of building a safer life in Cali. But their American Dream is soon shattered by neighborly threats and paranormal activity.
Fifteen-year-old Shahadi Wright Joseph plays Ruby Lee Emory, the oldest of the family’s two daughters. Not only does her character have to navigate post-traumatic stress, generational trauma, and a cross-country move to an inhospitable environment, but she also has to deal with the start of high school, which tbh, can bring its own set of traumas under normal circumstances.
“My character Ruby Lee is on this incredible journey of just finding and accepting herself when it comes to her skin color,” Shahadi tells Sesi. “[Ruby Lee] is very intelligent and witty but also very sensitive, and I think that I really, really tried to make that teenage Black girl experience as accurate as possible coming from me. I remember a time where I don’t even remember seeing a single Black person in a horror film or horror series. I feel like times have most definitely changed.”
After more than a century of horror films and shows that overwhelmingly featured all-white casts or minor Black characters who, more often than not, were the first to be killed off, there’s a new era in which Black creators are carving their own niche in this genre. And while some people have pointed out potential similarities among Them: Covenant and other recent films and TV shows, such as Jordan Peele’s Us and HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Shahadi says it’s not that simple.
While Shahadi hasn’t seen all of Lovecraft Country yet, she says her mom has, and her mom assured her the two shows probably won’t be compared as much once Them comes out.
As for that other one? “I can actually completely understand why people are seeing the similarities between Us and Them, specifically just because of the names and those are my two projects that I’ve done,” she says. “[But] nobody has seen [Them] yet, and when they do, they’re probably going to change their opinions [because] they are two completely different themes … Us was about class and immigration and American privilege, while Them is specifically talking about race in the Jim Crow Era.”
This theme has also been another source of criticism facing the show. Some have accused the series of profiting off Black trauma and others have asked why they couldn’t just make a Black-centered horror show “more along the lines of Jeepers Creepers … not Jim Crow.” In this case, according to press notes provided by Amazon Studios, Little Marvin was inspired by events that “made him think about terror in a very specific way: the weaponization of public and private space against Black folks in America.”
“I think [this series is] important just because [these types of incidents are] still happening today. I feel like when people talk about Black trauma, they always talk about it as something that happened so long ago when really … the racist microaggressions that Black people get on a daily basis, just the treatment we are still hearing about, that doesn’t end,” Shahadi says. “Also, racism is terrifying, so I feel like it’s literally perfect for the horror genre because it is so scary.”
And while a period piece like this was admittedly “tough to shoot,” Shahadi credits her on-screen fam with helping to lift the heaviness during breaks. “In between takes, [Melody Hurd, who plays younger sister Gracie Jean Emory] was always teaching me some kind of TikTok dance,” Shahadi shares. “We would always have a lot of laughs when we weren’t shooting, so it really did help.”
With her second horror movie in the can, Shahadi would be hype to take on a third — just not right away. Ya’ girl has range, OK, and she wants to show more of what she can do. She’d especially love to star in a drama or coming-of-age story.
In the meantime, Shahadi’s ready for the world to finally meet the Emory family and hopefully be all the way here for the show just as she was from jump. “I read the description of the series … and I immediately was on board and was very, very excited about the project,” she says. “I feel like that’s when I know that a project is going to be really good. Because if I would want to watch it, even if I wasn’t in it, I feel it’s, you know, even more special.”
Watch the full trailer below: