‘Swarm’: Empathy for the devil

OPINION: Dre, played by rising star Dominique Fishback, is such a compelling character, I can't help but feel for her — even if she is a serial killer.

Dominique Fishback as Dre in "Swarm." (Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video)

I loved Janine Nabers’ and Donald Glover’s new Amazon Prime series “Swarm” so much that — spoilers ahead — I couldn’t help but have a little empathy for Dre (Dominique Fishback). Like when Dre finally got to the gate of the Ni’jah concert, and it looked like she might not get in, I actually felt sad for her. I thought about how much that show meant to her and how much she had gone through to get to that moment. I mean, she had to kill a lot of people to get there. … Wait a minute. I know that sounds crazy, feeling sad for a serial killer, especially one who tends to murder people via blunt force trauma, i.e., whacking them in the head with something heavy. 

Dre’s vicious. Sometimes she kills for an understandable reason (like avenging her sister’s death or getting revenge on her friend’s violent boyfriend) but sometimes she kills for, uh, bad reasons (she kills the victim of the violent boyfriend because she just won’t stop talking, and she kills her girlfriend because she says she doesn’t like Ni’Jah’s music). She’s ice cold. But, still, at times, during the “Swarm” season, I felt bad for her. I don’t think she’s evil. I think she’s traumatized.

The inciting incident that launches Dre into this season and shapes her journey doesn’t happen when she buys the Ni’jah tickets. It begins when her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) kills herself. Dre feels guilty, thinking she could have saved her if only she had looked at her phone earlier. This is devastating because Marissa is the only person in the world who Dre can call family. Once Marissa dies, and Dre is left with immense guilt, something is unlocked in her that leads to her killing spree. She begins by killing Marissa’s boyfriend — who helped cause the suicide — but moves on to killing in the name of her other family — Ni’jah and the people who live for her. Of course, I can’t be totally sure of all that. 

Dre is someone who completely dissociates from reality at times. When she actually meets Ni’jah, we see the world from her POV — she’s biting into a fruit while in reality, she’s biting Ni’Jah. This is a clever callback to that time when some famous actress was rumored to have playfully bitten Beyoncé at a party, but it’s actually a really important clue to what’s going on in this world. Or it’s the opposite of a clue because clues help you figure things out, and this piece of information only makes my understanding of her world unravel.

Given that we know Dre can, sometimes, dissociate so much that even she doesn’t know what she’s doing, how can we truly trust everything we’re told about her? Was she out here killing people in the months or years before her sister died, like prior to the timeline of the show? I doubt it, but I can’t be sure. The show is from her perspective, and she’s an unreliable narrator — she might lie to us because she’s able to lie to herself. I interviewed Dominique Fishback for my podcast, “Toure Show,” and she said she felt like Dre might not have told her everything she did. She couldn’t truly trust her own character to tell her what’s what. So, which is it: Is she a traumatized person lashing out in the wake of her sister’s death or is she an inherently evil mass murderer? I can’t be sure.

There’s been a lot of great Black horror projects in recent years from Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to “Us” to “Nope” as well as Nia Dacosta’s 2021 film, “Candyman” and Misha Green’s HBO show “Lovecraft Country” and of course, “Swarm.” When it’s Black people in a horror situation, whether we’re in danger or doing the killing, there’s automatically an added element to it all. In “Nope,” it’s Black people trying to keep from becoming victims, playing on the idea that we’ve got commonsense that movie white folks often lack. We’re more, uh, woke than they are because we don’t have a deep faith that things will just work out for us; we know life can go left, so we know it’s best to run and then ask why we’re running. We’d never be so dumb that we’d traipse up into the attic to explore why there’s a noise because we’re smart enough to know that it could be bad. In “Candyman,” it’s a Black person doing the killing, but he’s the result of white violence — he was lynched by a white mob, which has turned his undead body into a serial killer. A 2021 New York Times essay “How Black Horror Became America’s Most Powerful Cinematic Genre” posited this: 

A demonic girl’s spinning head might seem unsettling to everyone, but the fear of being followed — haunted — by men in white Klan hoods or blue uniforms is one that many white Americans will never know. The resurgence of Black horror, then, forces viewers to witness the frightening reality of being Black in a world that still — as Toni Morrison notes in “Playing in the Dark” (1992), her critical study of whiteness in American literature — associates darkness of skin with the old meanings of darkness that our ancestors originally applied to the night: fear, uncertainty, danger. 

Dre from “Swarm” is a bit different. She’s a poor, young Black woman who, at the start of the show, seems ignored and forgotten in the world. She kills as a way of lashing out — it’s almost like a way of making sure she’s heard. She’s also someone whose favorite artist is a vessel for the person she wishes to be — Ni’Jah is the embodiment of everything Dre dreams of being. Anyone who says anything negative about Ni’Jah must be dealt with because they’re disrespecting Dre’s dream self. Ni’Jah and her rabid fans are a clear analogy for Beyoncé and the Beyhive, but “Swarm” isn’t a comment on them, it’s about Dre, a young sister who’s a homicidal member of her chosen family because, in the real world, she has no family.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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