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‘THEM’s’ Little Marvin on the Freeing Experience of Placing Black Actors in Old Hollywood Settings

"When you create a show like this there's a secret little piece of you that hopes it wasn't as relevant," Little Marvin said.

Deborah Ayorinde, Melody Hurd, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Ashley Thomas




Little Marvin is living in a surreal moment. His Amazon Prime Video series, “THEM,” has sparked all manner of conversation and is one of the most-watched series on the streaming service. “I’m still dealing with the fact that we have a show. I have yet to fully process the fact that our show has come out and that it’s being viewed around the world,” he told IndieWire.

The series, following a Black family in the 1950s who move into an all-white California suburb only to experience racism and supernatural events, was a passion project for Little Marvin. More importantly, it offered him the opportunity to examine the historical creation of Old Hollywood and transform it by adding in Black cast members.

“That was one of the most freeing and rewarding pieces of the entire journey. Getting a chance to not only pay homage to my favorite films of that era, but also to reclaim that frame,” he said. During the series’ junket, Marvin talked about the specific features that played into the series. He drew inspiration from the horror thrillers of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, including Alfred Hitchcock, William Friedkin, and Brian De Palma.

“‘Carrie’ is a massively influential movie to me,” he said. Little Marvin also said he’s a huge fan of melodrama, and that a heavy dose of the series’ inspiration comes from the work of director Douglas Sirk, as well as Todd Haynes’ subversion of Sirk’s work in the 2002 feature “Far From Heaven.” “We were rarely, if ever, at the center of those frames,” Little Marvin said. He cites Alfred Hitchcock and his blonde actresses as another inspiration he wanted to subvert. “To get a chance to reinvestigate that look and put Deborah [Ayorinde] there… was really one of the most rewarding parts of the journey.”

Little Marvin’s gratitude for the series is not misplaced. As he said, there were concerns they wouldn’t have a show, especially once the pandemic hit. “The entire journey was hypothetical this time last year,” he said. “We were all hanging by a thread, in life, when we got shut down.” He said there’s a sober sensibility to seeing the series out now, particularly in the wake of ongoing protests on racial inequality and the continued presence of police brutality.

“When you create a show like this there’s a secret little piece of you that hopes it wasn’t as relevant, that the themes you’re exploring aren’t as relevant, but they continue to be relevant,” he said. “But it also validates why you set out to make the show to begin with.” A big element of that comes in Episode 5, a defining moment for both the show and its leading lady, Ayorinde. Told in flashback, the audience sees what brought the Emorys to Compton in the first place: Lucky’s rape and the murder of their baby by a gang of racists.

Shahadi Wright Joseph


Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

For Marvin, he said he had to go into that episode without any blinders on. “We set out, particularly with that episode, to truthfully and honestly contend with a history of violence against Black folks in this country,” he said. It’s an episode he wholly stands by but simultaneously understands that audiences would have many thoughts and opinions on it. “Frankly, I think the conversation is incredible regardless of what side of the aisle you fall on,” he said.

When it came to writing the episode the main thing was to focus on Lucky’s character and her narrative arc. “My mind was fully there,” he said. On the other side of that, he said, was to look at it from the perspective of being a showrunner, which meant conceiving how they would approach it with regards to filming. “From day one we knew we had to wrap Deborah in a cocoon of safety,” he said. That desire for protection also extended to the other actors on-set, all of whom had access to an on-set therapist.

As Ayorinde said in discussing the episode, it’s an episode that still gives her chills, especially as she recalls how the crew outside and surrounding the set, who weren’t there, could hear her screams. “Craft services just came up to me and hugged me, they just showed me so much love,” she said. After filming concluded Ayorinde said both she and the male actors in the scene would go off to separate areas and break down.

Having the therapist on set was a huge benefit, according to Ayorinde who ended up calling the therapist at the end of the day. “Your body doesn’t know whether you’re telling the truth or acting,” she said. “Every bit of fear, the fight or flight, every bit that I imagined someone going through I actually felt.” Ayorinde said she also ended up entering therapy outside of what was provided on the set.

As Little Marvin continues to take everything in, he remains amazed at how audiences are dissecting the ending of the series. It’s something he looks forward to discussing as the anthology series returns for a second season. “The striking of that chord is what we set out to do,” he said. “That’s central to the DNA of what we’re creating… being as honest with the things that terrify us the most is going to continue to be the moving force.”

“THEM” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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