Friday 24 March 2023

Streaming on Prime Video - Rod Bishop grapples with SWARM (Donald Glover, Janine Nabers, USA, 2023)

Donald Glover

The dramatic centre to this new series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers (Atlanta) is a toxic pop-music fan known as Dre. 

Dre is willing to do anything – and she really means anything - to protect her Goddess-like heroine, the singer Ni’Jah (a fictional version of Beyoncé). 

Her particular targets are Ni’Jah’s social media haters and she becomes a serial killer, travelling the country, stalking and murdering people who have dissed her favourite singer.

It’s satirical, but based in real life in the USA where the mental health instability of toxic media fans has no equivalent in this country or any other that I know of (except maybe India). 

I’ve only seen this behaviour once, twenty-eight years ago, at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards (of all places). I was there as the guest of the Dean of UCLA’s film school, himself a film critic on public radio.

Arriving at the venue, I was very surprised by the huge crowd of fans being kept behind barriers by the LAPD. This was a Critics Awards Night? Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder were among the guests and when it was over, the four of us found ourselves together as we waited for the valets to bring around the cars. The crowd of fans had grown decidedly larger, more vocal and emotionally volatile and were threatening to break through the protective barrier. 

Billy Wilder took one look at them and decided it would be quicker and safer to fetch his own car. He left Jack Lemmon waiting with the two of us.

Lemmon, much smaller in stature than I’d ever imagined, was clearly very frightened and asked if he could hide between us to avoid the crowd spotting him. Wilder, perhaps even smaller than Lemmon, finally arrived in his enormous Rolls Royce and they left. 

The crowd, yelling and screaming, moved on in search of more celebrities to harass. 

It had no similarity with the award night of the Film Critics Circle of Australia at the Paddington Town Hall. 

Watching Swarm, I realized I knew so little about Beyoncé, I didn’t even know she had amassed 32 Grammys from 88 nominations.

I didn’t know the name Swarm was a direct reference to Beyoncé’s fan base known as Beyhive; or that “stan” is short for “standom”, (itself short for superfan); or that Beyoncé’s sister Solange Knowles physically attacked Beyoncé’s husband, the rapper Jay-Z, in an elevator in 2014 while Beyoncé passively watched on.

I am not sure my life is enriched by knowing any of this, but I am indebted to Time Magazine’s “Comprehensive Guide to all the Beyoncé references in Swarm”. Apparently, there are 32 of them spread across 6 of the 7 episodes.

The only time I remember taking any interest in Beyoncé was hearing she’d made a surprising reference to the Black Panthers during her half-time show at the 2016 Super Bowl. So, I consider myself entirely unqualified to comment on much of Swarm, in particular the pop culture references.

But I do know Swarm is a very different kettle of fish to Donald Glover’s previous outing Atlanta. That was three seasons of seriously witty, droll and incisive commentary on race relations in America, with a host of sympathetic characters brought to life by Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz and others.

"...chilling performance..." Dominique Fishback as Dre 

Swarm does have one chilling performance - from Dominique Fishback as the superfan or “stan” Dre - but there are no other recurring roles. The rest are caricatures rather than fully-formed characters, and all light-weight as a result.

Pop performer Billie Eilish does her best in episode 6, but is stuck with one of those let’s-laugh-at-the-silly-New-Age-hippie roles.

Billie Eilish

In Atlanta, Glover provided a hugely entertaining twist to systemic racism and there was no escaping the seriousness of the underlying messages.

For Swarm, his own rap career as “Childish Gambino” has clearly given him experience with the toxic “stans”. In his 2018 rap song, This Is America, there are references to violent social media along with massacres in schools and churches, black-face Minstrels and Jim Crows. It won four Grammys including Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

What’s missing from Swarm is the counterpoint he found in Atlanta – there’s almost no comedy or no empathetic characters behind his message. It makes for very strident viewing.

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