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Black TV Shows Thrive at This Year's SXSW

Prime Video's Swarm and AMC's Demascus are part of an impressive TV slate from Black creators.
  • Dominique Fishback in Swarm (Photo: Prime Video)
    Dominique Fishback in Swarm (Photo: Prime Video)

    Fans and critics come to SXSW for the weird, quirky, and boundary-pushing new content, and this year was no different. While my previous trips to the festival allowed me to experience groundbreaking films and television shows, this year, the content spoke even more explicitly to my culture, Black culture. The 2023 festival seemed to hit a new record of debuting television shows created by and featuring majority Black casts to audiences that were sure to be surprised and enamored by the depths, twists, and turns of the content they witnessed. Rich and layered art that I have been dying to see more of in the media. While I, in the words of Issa Rae, am always rooting for everybody Black, I dove into just two of the new series that show us as Black people in a multifaceted capacity, and let the Black creatives behind them push limits in unique ways. 

    Prime Video made its usual trip to SXSW, this time to showcase the first two episodes of Swarm, the highly anticipated suspense thriller from Donald Glover and his Atlanta collaborator Janine Nabers. With a star-studded cast led by the uber-talented Dominique Fishback, Swarm is about best friends Dre (Fishback) and Marissa (Chloe Bailey), who are beyond obsessed with pop star Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown).

    Viewers left the Paramount Theater buzzing about all of the very overt and intentional Ni’Jah references that mirror one larger-than-life Texas superstar from the same hometown as Nabers (and myself). But it wasn’t just those similarities that drew the SXSW audience in — Nabers shared at the festival that she wanted to create a Black woman-led psychological horror because we rarely see Black women onscreen like this, and she delivers. 

    The first episodes are centered on Dre and her obsession with Ni’Jah, rather than focusing on the fictional legendary artist. Without spoiling, Fishback gives an elite and chilling performance unlike any other at this point in her career. Dre is a rare complexity: obsessed yet reserved, impulsive yet calculating, quiet yet fierce, and unassuming yet feral. When an unthinkable event happens, it unleashes something in Dre that engulfs her and adjusts the course of her life forever. 

    The first two episodes are funny, shocking, harrowing, unexpected, and at points, incredibly difficult to watch. The humor is not something one would initially expect in a show with such dark undertones, but can’t life be a mixture of laughter, pain, and sadness? But Swarm is about more than just a woman on a journey to change her world, fueled by the success and lyrics of her musical icon; it seeks to be a profound commentary on when fandoms go too far. The first two episodes only scratch the surface of this critique, but they will intrigue you enough to keep watching. 

    While viewers should not be married to the idea that they know where the show is going or get too attached to any one character, they should be prepared to consistently see Dre morph, shape, and bloom right before their eyes. Whatever you think you know about Dre from the first episode quickly shifts, and the grand swings will fuel your need to see more.

    Both Swarm and Demascus tap into a self-discovery of sorts for their protagonists. While the former does so through the lens of fandom and horror, the latter does so through artificial intelligence and science fiction. The AMC/AMC+ show, created by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, had its three-episode premiere, and boy, do we hope the masses get to experience it. Demascus follows the titular character who is portrayed by Station 19 alum Okieriete Onaodowan. We see this Black Man, affectionately known as “D,” navigate life in a version of America in 2023. Through innovative new technology, known as Digital Immersive Reality Therapy (aka D.I.R.T.) given to him by his therapist, Dr. B (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's Janet Hubert), Demascus can tap into alternate realities that may help him find his purpose. He can use this device to mine his subconscious, and Dr. B can track patterns and use underlying themes to help make his “primary reality” better. 

    This show may be a sci-fi lover's delight, but it's a Black sci-fi lover’s wildest dream, with funny & nuanced characters (shoutout to Redd!), peak Black cultural references, beautiful set design, and incredible technology alongside some of our Black acting legends (Martin Lawrence, Lynn Whitfield, and the list goes on and on). 

    Throughout the three episodes, there are times when you’re unsure if the version of Demascus you see is his primary reality or if he’s using D.I.R.T. These blurred lines feel intentional. Still, you know that no matter the reality, Demascus seeks happiness. While his other realities can be unpredictable — there’s violence, the introduction of new family members, and exploration of the love he needs and desires versus the love he currently has — it is clear that Demascus is in need of healing. Does his trauma stem from parental issues, grief, or abandonment? These are some of the questions we hope to get answers to in the remaining episodes, which had all been filmed prior to cancellation. There are even more secrets behind this therapy than the first few episodes reveal, and I hope audiences (including myself) get to see them.

    Swarm and Demascus are bold in their approach to storytelling, bringing to life characters that are not always lovable or relatable, and dealing with their trauma in polar opposite ways. While not all viewers will agree with these characters’ choices, you will be talking about them. It may look like the only thing Dre and Demascus have in common is the first letter of their names, but there are more similarities than meets the eye. Dre and Demascus desire more for their lives but don’t necessarily know how to achieve that. They both have a deep need and yearning for love and acceptance. While their paths and journeys differ, it is great to see Black creators take chances like this on television. The freedom to show Black joy, pain, rage, and even poor decision-making, just leans into more expansive storytelling for Black characters that we’ve been craving. 

    Season 1 of Swarm is now streaming on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Kay-B is an Entertainment Journalist, Producer, Digital Content Creator & Host of On-Call with Kay-B on iHeartMedia. You can find links to all of her content here


    TOPICS: SXSW, Amazon Prime Video, AMC, AMC+, Demascus, Swarm, Dominique Fishback, Donald Glover, Janine Nabers, Okieriete Onaodowan, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm