Dominique Fishback is ready for her closeup.
After getting noticed for supporting roles in Netflix’s 2020 sci-fi action film “Project Power” and Warner Bros. Pictures’ Oscar-winning 2021 drama “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Fishback gives a tour-de-force starring performance in Prime Video’s seven-episode limited series “Swarm,” which premiered on March 17.
“Swarm” doesn’t follow the usual stereotypes of how Black women in leading roles are usually portrayed in TV shows. It’s a very adult-oriented horror series that’s a dark satire of obsessive fandoms, addiction to smartphones, and how Black women move in a world that often discriminates and devalues Black women. Let’s just say that things get very messy.
In “Swarm” (which takes place in chronological order, from 2016 to 2018), Fishback is the character of Andrea, nicknamed Dre, who is in her early 20s. Although “Swarm” lampoons many elements of pop culture, what the series does not make fun of is mental illness. Dre, who has an undiagnosed mental illness, goes through various aliases and identities throughout the story. She’s obsessed with a superstar singer named Ni’jah (played by Nirine S. Brown), who is an obvious parody of Beyoncé. Dre’s fixation on Ni’jah (pronounced nye-jah) leads Dre to do some very disturbing things, especially if anyone disrespects Ni’jah.
“Swarm” was co-created by executive producers Janine Nabers (the showrunner) and Donald Glover. All of the episode directors for “Swarm” are Black: Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Adamma Ebo, and Ibra Ake. People already know Donald Glover for his Emmy-winning work with FX’s “Atlanta,” but “Swarm” marks Nabers’ first experience as a showrunner. Nabers has a background as a playwright and has previous TV producing credits on “Atlanta,” HBO’s superhero limited series “Watchmen” and Netflix’s short-lived 2020 sci-fi drama series “Away.” Nabers, Stephen Glover, and Malia Obama are among the writers of “Swarm.”
In the first episode of “Swarm,” Dre is living in her hometown of Houston with her best friend, Marissa Jackson (played by Chloe Bailey), who is the opposite of Dre in many ways. Dre is introverted and insecure, while Marissa is extroverted and confident. It’s later revealed that Marissa’s parents took Dre into their home as a foster child, which is why Dre tells many people she meets that Marissa is her sister. Marissa is also a longtime, avid fan of Ni’jah, but Marissa is not dangerously obsessed with Ni’jah in the same way as Dre.
Most of the “Swarm” episodes begin with this statement: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” Don’t be fooled by that statement, however. “Swarm” is fictional but borrows some elements from reality. The music industry and obsessive fandoms on social media are portrayed in realistic ways in “Swarm.” In a SXSW Studio interview at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival (where “Swarm” had its world premiere), Nabers admitted, “This is our version of a world that exists in bits and pieces.”
The devoted fan base for Ni’jah is called The Hive. In real life, Beyoncé’s most ardent fans call themselves the Bey Hive. In “Swarm,” the sound of buzzing bees is heard every time Dre gets upset about something related to Ni’jah. What really sets off Dre is when anyone insults Ni’jah. And when Dre gets angry, it’s the reason why “Swarm” is a horror show.
Ni’jah is married to a very famous rapper named Caché (played by Stephen Glover), who is obviously based on Jay-Z. Caché is a distant figure in the series, seen only in music video clips, photos, and performance footage. That’s because “Swarm” is told from Dre’s perspective, and everyone in her perspective is secondary to Ni’jah, including Ni’jah’s younger sister, who is described to be a lot like Solange Knowles.
“Swarm” spoofs real-life news-making events from Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s life: The 2014 elevator surveillance video of Solange Knowles hitting Jay-Z, while Beyoncé stoically stands by and says nothing; the 2018 “Apeshit” video, which Beyoncé and Jay-Z famously filmed at The Louvre Museum in Paris; and the “Who bit Beyoncé?” mystery of 2018, when another woman was accused of biting Beyoncé in the face during a party. “Swarm” also has an entire episode inspired by Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance as a headliner at 2018’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In “Swarm,” it’s not Coachella but the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival where Dre makes a pilgrimage to see headliner Ni’jah. Dre doesn’t stay in Houston (which is Beyoncé’s hometown too) for the duration of the series. Dre’s travels take her to Georgia, California, and Tennessee.
“Swarm” also doesn’t put a label on the sexuality of the chameleon-like Dre. At times, she appears to be asexual, while in other parts of the series, she has sexual hookups with men, and later has a romance with a woman named Rashida Thompson (played by Kiersey Clemons), who’s a few years older than her
. Viewers eventually find out why Dre tends to be mistrustful of men. One of the men she doesn’t like is Marissa’s boyfriend Khalid (played by Damson Idris), who shows all the signs of being a “player,” including sexually flirting with Dre.
“Swarm” includes pointed commentary on race relations between white women and Black women. In Episode 4, when Dre goes to Tennessee to see Ni’jah at Bonnaroo, she encounters a group of white women who describe themselves as feminists on a constant quest for spiritual enlightenment and wellness. These feminists participate in the types of trendy all-female retreats that often aren’t very welcoming to Black women, but they invite Dre into their social circle, only to treat her like a charity case/pet project. Billie Eilish has a memorable guest appearance as a feminist named Eva in this episode, which also parodies how some of these spiritual groups are actually more like cults.
In Episode 2, Paris Jackson has a guest appearance as an exotic dancer named Halsey, who tries to befriend Dre. The Halsey character in “Swarm” appears to be white, but she identifies as Black. (It’s a description that applies to the real-life singer Halsey.) The casting of Paris Jackson is interesting, since superstar entertainer Michael Jackson was her father, and some people have often speculated about how much Blackness is in his children’s racial identities.
The ending of “Swarm” is sure to be divisive, because it doesn’t follow a typical formula. However, Fishback gives an impactful performance that has vaulted her into leading lady status and is a showcase for her impressive acting range. There are many extreme events in “Swarm,” but what will resonate with viewers the most are Dre’s complexities, as well as larger issues of mental health care pertaining to the Black community. As Fishback said in the SXSW Studio interview about her “Swarm” character: “I think she is a character that is full of love and pain. I don’t think she had the support to process the grief and trauma that she had in her life.”