“Murder, sex, and music” is what SXSW festival-goers were promised if they attended the world premiere of Swarm.
Warning: This article contains some spoilers for Swarm.
The second TV series creation of multi-hyphenate Donald Glover kicked off the film and TV portion of the festival in Austin on March 10, and it ticked all three boxes.
Creators: Donald Glover and Janine Nabers
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video
The ‘Swarm’ pilot episode was inspired by a viral internet rumor, and the show’s main character was inspired by a tweet.
The horror-thriller follows a young anti-hero named Dre (Dominique Fishback) who has an all-consuming obsession with a pop star named Ni’Jah, rumored to be inspired by Beyoncé, and who very well may be the very first on-screen female Black serial killer—something addressed by Swarm co-creator and showrunner Janine Nabers (who worked on HBO’s Watchmen and with Glover on Atlanta) during the Q&A portion after the premiere.
“I think as Americans, we’re so conditioned to seeing white men be angry and giving them the space for violence on film and TV,” Nabers started, referencing Netflix’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which she lauded as “one of the biggest shows that Netflix has ever done.”
She revealed Glover was encouraged to make Dre a serial killer after reading a tweet by a Black woman he follows. “He just loves her tweets. She was like, ‘Why does every Black woman on TV have to be a therapist, or a funny best friend, or someone looking for love, or a teacher? We can be crazy; we can be serial killers, too,’” Nabers said.
Dre reaches serial killer status (three or more kills) in just the two first episodes, both of which premiered at Paramount Theatre during SXSW. Dre kills her sister’s boyfriend (Damson Idris) with a lamp after he cheated on her sister, Marissa (Chlöe Bailey)—which caused her to die by suicide—before stuffing his body in her car’s trunk. Dre’s car later breaks down and ultimately leads to the murder of a man who fits the stereotype of a good samaritan being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He stops to help out but, to his detriment, fails to name Ni’Jah when Dre asks him who his favorite artist is.
SXSW attendees could get a closer look at the car used in the show at the Amazon Prime activation. Situated outside the Austin Motel-turned-a Texaco mini-mart featured in the show was Dre’s car, complete with a “body” wrapped in a black body bag hanging out of the trunk.
Dre’s third victim was the boyfriend of a woman who worked alongside Dre at a strip club.
While violence plays the loudest role in the first two episodes, there are also emerging underlying themes of sisterhood and connection.
“How Marissa internalizes her pain, she harms herself. And how Dre internalizes her pain, she harms others. It’s like they have this weird trauma bond, and the sisterhood, and how much they love each other—it’s almost to an obsessive point. But it’s so strong that nothing can really break it, and it’s like till death do them part,” Bailey explained of Dre and Marissa’s relationship.
While Dre seems stuck in the past and is emotionally stunted, Marissa has outgrown a lot about their adolescence. Marissa is still a Ni’Jah fan, but to a healthy degree. She’s ready to grow up, move in with her boyfriend, and even questions why Dre is still tweeting from an “old-ass” Ni’Jah stan account. When Marissa dies, Ni’Jah is the only person left who Dre feels she has a connection to, which likely explains why Dre’s violent behavior and obsession with Ni’Jah will escalate as the season goes on.
After the trailer dropped, fans pointed to everything from a reference to Ni’Jah’s sister to her aesthetic to speculate the series is inspired by Beyoncé and how her fanbase, also known as the Beyhive, act. The fact that Bailey, who is signed to Beyoncé’s label and mentored by the 32-time Grammy award winner along with her musical counterpart and sister, stars in the series as Marissa is also likely not a coincidence as Beyoncé is well-known for being very hands-on in any project she or her protégés are involved in.
During a Q&A after the premiere, it was all but confirmed Beyoncé was the inspiration for Ni’Jah’s character. Nabers said “a pop star who shall not be named” watched the show but refused to elaborate, also giving weight to the theory Bailey would never take on a role that the star didn’t know about or would partake in a project that would, in some way, be disrespectful to her mentor. However, Nabers later backtracked through a representative who told Variety that Nabers “had misspoken, and does not know who has seen the series and who hasn’t.”
Nabers also revealed the first episode was inspired by a viral internet rumor. According to Inquisitor, a fake article claiming a 31-year-old Houstonian named Marissa Jackson, who was such a huge fan that she named her child “Jayonce”—a blend of Beyoncé and Jay Z—died by suicide at her apartment after watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth studio album and accompanying film that hinted at Jay Z’s alleged infidelity in 2016. While the story picked up traction on both Facebook and Twitter, it was eventually debunked.
“For two days we thought this was a real event, and it was dispelled later on Black Twitter. … When Donald pitched this idea of a Black woman who’s obsessed with a pop star, I said, ‘I know what the pilot is’ and ran with it,” Nabers recalled before revealing “every episode deals with real news stories, real events or internet rumors that have happened.”
The series also served as a chance for former first daughter Malia Obama, who graduated from Harvard in 2021, “to get her feet wet in TV” by being part of the writer’s room, Nabers told Vanity Fair in a January interview. Nabers said the 24-year-old could offer unique insight into the main characters of the show, who are also in their 20s. Bailey praised Obama at the premiere, saying, “Being on set with all these incredible Black women, Janine, and Dom, and even Malia, it was like we were all supporting each other through the art.”
According to Variety, this is the first time TV shows will premiere on both opening and closing nights during SXSW. Another dark comedy by showrunner Lee Sung Jin, Beef, is slated to close out the festival on March 18.
You can watch Swarm on Prime Video on March 17.