Donald Glover’s new Amazon show ‘Swarm’ takes on the Beyhive

Janine Nabers’ Swarm, a limited series about a deranged fan who wants to kill to defend her idol, is an unexpected and solid follow-up to the television writer and playwright’s most recent works.

Nabers, who contributed to the final season of Donald Glover’s seminal FX series “Atlanta” (which concluded in November), is taking the helm this time around as showrunner and head writer, though they’ve split the duties of creator and executive producer .

“Swarm,” which continues in “Atlanta’s” tradition of strange and volatile storytelling, follows Dre (Dominique Fishback) — a Houston native and die-hard fan of pop phenomenon Ni’Jah. Ni’Jah is a blatant avatar for Beyoncé, right down to her tour outfits and her music mogul husband, Cache. But Nabers insists the show isn’t specifically targeting the Beyhive. “We’re really just letting people see themselves in Dre’s madness because we’ve taken real events and put a person in the middle,” he said.

Each episode opens with the disclaimer: “This is not a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or real events, is intentional.” And although Dre’s character is indeed fictional, many of the pop culture events and crimes depicted are real.

“We have been researching for months to find essential facts [between 2016 and 2018] that we could put our main character in,” Numbers said. “So it’s not really a work of fiction. We took real internet rumors, real murders and combined them into the narrative of our main character, Dre. Not many of them are made.”

The seed of the idea was planted during the final season of “Atlanta,” when Glover proposed the general premise of a homicidal superfan to Nabers. “And then we ran with it during COVID,” he said. “I created it with [Glover]a musical artist who has his own flock and fans, so we drew from experiences both personal and [not]. So I think it’s okay for people to say, “They remind me of Barbz or Swifties.” That’s the conversation we want people to have.”

“It would be great if there was a way for people to look outside of themselves and [examine] what is their relationship with certain celebrities,” he added. “A lot of people appropriate people they love that they’ve never met before and as wild as Dre is, and as extreme as some of her actions are, when you pull back the curtain of obsession and bigotry, I think there are a lot of people who can relate to her in some way.”

“A lot of times for black actresses, we’re playing … not necessarily stereotypes [roles], but it’s something they’ve seen us often. I’m so blessed to be able to do this character,” Dominique Fishback said of playing a serial killer.

(Courtesy of Prime Video)

After finishing Ni’Jah’s career, Nabers turned to several memorable moments in Beyoncé’s life (including that now-infamous moment in the elevator and the time someone bit her face) and recreated them for the screen.

“Obviously all these people are public figures and legally, you can’t use the actual footage,” he explained. “That’s how we made the shot [ourselves] and they are a lot of fun. We were able to recreate every moment within that time frame. When we sat down to watch that period of history, it was really about the feeling those moments gave you. Everyone remembers where they were when the elevator moment happened. It’s undeniable that there are moments with musicians that change the culture.”

“[Plus] murders are representations,” he added. “Everything you see throughout this show is something that has been researched and considered. And so I think we’ve done a really good job of allowing our audience to experience these little American moments that actually existed, but people just don’t know about it.”

Fishback was originally approached to play Dre’s sister Marissa. “As an actor who wants an opportunity to challenge myself, I was looking to see what that would be like,” he said. “After I said I wanted it, and [Donald Glover] he was like, “Well, it’s yours.” I was like, “Oh man, what have I gotten myself into?

“The more [clear direction] that Donald gave me was that Dre was emotionally flawed,” he added. “They didn’t give me much on paper, so it was really up to me. I decided I wasn’t going to try to orchestrate how it was going to move. I would let the clothes and the hair and my fellow actors influence me.”

“Donald and I talked a lot about what our interpretation is of someone who is a little bit of an alien in her world,” Numbers said. “We drew from a lot of European films, watched a lot of the Criterion Collection, and we’re both really big fans of Michael Haneke — this really incredible German director who’s made some really good French films. That was a huge influence for us. We watched ‘The Piano Teacher,’ which is one of the most extroverted movies I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Dre was heavily influenced by the psychological drama’s protagonist, Erika (played by Isabelle Huppert), the honor instructor who is sexually repressed and lives with her domineering mother. “We follow her point of view throughout the film,” Nabers said. “He doesn’t talk much, but he’s one of the most memorable characters in movie history.”

Nabers was also inspired by iconic serial killer films and morally ambiguous protagonists such as Tony Soprano. “The feeling that Tony Soprano gives you when you watch him is fascinating, but also terrifying. I think a lot of these characters that we call iconic [rely] for their dangerousness and their charisma and the power to hold space,” Numbers said. “A lot of these characters are reserved for white people in TV and film, especially for white people. So we wanted to take some of that white male energy and channel it into a black woman who gives zero f—s.”

“I watch movies like ‘Monster’ with Charlize Theron, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ with Hilary Swank and [‘The Dark Knight’] with Heath Ledger as the Joker and all these artists had to build a character,” Fishback said. “A lot of times for black actresses, we’re playing … not necessarily stereotypes [roles], but it’s something they’ve seen us often. I’m so blessed to have done it with this character.”

“There’s something about these characters that’s compelling in a way, despite their villainy,” Nabers said. “I think there’s something about the tug-of-war with the mind trying to understand or rationalize how a serial killer gets away with what he’s done for so long. There is little [this person] playing a role, which I think is really interesting. It’s a tale as old as time, it’s America. Serial killers have always existed and always will.”

“Swarm” premieres Friday at SXSW and begins streaming March 17 on Prime Video.

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