Written by Scotty Landes
Directed by Tate Taylor
Dipping and dodging major spoilers. Mild ones may appear.
When I was digging into what was next for Black women in the genre earlier this year, noticing that Octavia Spencer would appear in a horror film sparked moderate interest. This is an Oscar winner who had been consistently appearing in minor roles. I dismissively assumed she'd be another tertiary authority figure with maybe 15 minutes of screen time. If we were lucky.
Don't mistake, Spencer is a delight in almost every character she steps in. She both stands back and stands out by offering just enough humor, charm, and awareness. She consistently has a presence that always stands above what a role requires. When the trailer for Spencer-led latest dropped, so did my jaw. A central, Black female antagonist in a wide release horror film backed by a major company with an established star is far from common. I was immediately charged by what this short sequence of images could possibly mean, not just within the film, but for the landscape of Black representation in horror cinema.
And then eagerness was shook with reality:
Ma screenwriter Scott Landes is white and male, and directed by Tate Taylor, writer and director of The Help.
This Twitter thread offers receipts and details of how Taylor offers great pause in a project with prominent characters of color:
Just a heads-up on the #MAMovie cast & crew quick IMDBing & googling:— black bastard (@MiQL) February 14, 2019
Supporting cast: 👨🏼👩🏼👩🏼👩🏼👩🏼👨🏼👩🏼👨🏿👨🏼
Hair & Make-up: 👨🏼👩🏼👩🏾👨🏼👨🏼👩🏼👩🏾
The film takes place in Natchez, Mississippi.
The new high schooler in town Maggie (Diana Silvers) quickly makes friendly with a motley crew of peers looking to fill the time between classes with vaping and drinking. Using doe-eyed Maggie to get an adult to soften their moral compass just so happens to be Sue Ann (Spencer) who gets them the alcohol they covet plus the bonus of the controlled environment of her home basement. But these kids, particularly Maggie, begin to question the gracious motives of a grown woman so interested in partying with a bunch of teenagers. But there are carefully paced telltale signs that relay how Sue Ann's works blur notions of innocence, revenge, as well as intent.
Ma is a more delicate yet brutal, disturbing and melancholy film than the trailer leads us to believe. This, in a sense, multifaceted role is more than the sympathetic villain on the surface of optics, but strikes the right balance of addressing what isolation, humiliation, and stark, self-hatred can infringe on the mental well-being of anyone, but here, a Black woman. This narrative encases this combination to offer a more commentative outlook on the historical and current experiences of Black women (albeit seemingly accidentally) in our internal and external sociopolitical landscape.
It's safe to say that certain stereotypical asssumptions (referenced at Film School Rejects and The Hollywood Reporter) only cover a portion of understanding what the title itself, "Ma", a qausi-deconstruction from the concept of a mammy (big, cantankerous, bossy, nurturing, forsaking self for others), yet goes further with mammy-ism in ways that may surprise some. Mammy-ism is generally described as a process Black women are specifically vulnerable to. It is the feelings and practices devoid of allowing Black women any amount of self worth due to the inability for Black women to fit a Eurocentric ideal of womanhood. And there are symbols of this all throughout the film!
Ma picks at an open sore that never seems to show signs of healing, and that's the horror within Sue Ann that Maggie's family and friends will only outwardly witness with no personal, physical, and psychological understanding. Ma's heart is in how it conveys a deep empathy for a character that seems almost literally stuck in both a time and ideology that fuels how a person's personal discontent (justly, which I would argue is even more frightening) can have dire consequences for everyone in her wake. It's a fresh boost in the bullied/revenge canon because its channeling the Other through someone experiencing the simultaneous workings of that status due to their race, class, and gender.
"Mammy-ism: A Diagnosis of Psychological Misorientation for Women of African Descent" by Afi Samuelia Abdullah. Journal of Black Psychology. May 1998.
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle. 5th Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Inc. 2016.