Ma is two movies in one, and which one you experience may depend on whether you’re black or you’re white. Think of it as a racial Rorschach test.
On the surface, its plot doesn’t have much to do with race. It’s basically an intergenerational take on the “psycho stalker thriller” genre that, in hammier hands, could’ve been called Single Black Female. Octavia Spencer stars as the titular “Ma,” (real name Sue Ann Ellington), a middle-aged black woman in a small town who becomes obsessed with a group of local high schoolers she uses to relive (and improve upon) her less-than-popular adolescent years.
WHY she was so unpopular, however, is where black and white audiences might diverge, and this seemingly trivial difference in interpretation colors viewers’ expectations and experiences while watching the film. While some might see her as a standard target for high school bullies — shy, socially awkward, geeky (with thick glasses), a bit overweight — others will hone in on the fact that in flashbacks, she also appears to have been the only black student in her mostly white class. Those who’ve been in a similar situation know that this distinction can single you out as low-hanging fruit for kids looking for any excuse to ostracize.
Her tormentors don’t have to be card-carrying KKK members to pick on the black girl, of course — race is never specified as a factor in her being targeted — but racism is often so subtle that even its perpetrators might not realize the reason for their antagonism. They just know instinctively that she’s an outsider; she’s not one of them, even if she was born and raised in the same town. A racial minority is easy to identify, and in high school, anyone who stands out is a target.
Thus, I thought Ma had potential as a powerful testament to the nuances and ambiguous nature of racial exclusion. When you’re the lone minority and you feel slighted for no apparent reason, you can’t help but wonder if it’s because of your race. And yet, in the movie, it’s never apparent that this thought strikes Sue Ann. The script generally avoids her mindset as far as race goes — no doubt because the character was initially written as white (but, as with Night of the Living Dead, racial overtones appear when you cast a black lead, whether intended or not). When Darrell (Dante Brown), the lone black kid in the group of teens she befriends, makes a comment about the history of “our people” in slavery and looks to her for a level of acknowledgment, she fails to respond.
Is she uncomfortable with her blackness? At the very least, there are moments that hint at the fact that she’s infatuated with whiteness. She comments on how nice one of the boys’ skin is, for instance, and in a flashback, she compliments her white crush’s hair. The script leaves things so vague, though, that those who don’t want to read anything racial into it don’t have to. But some of us can’t help but do so.
Sue Ann’s only direct reference to race occurs late in the film when she paints an unconscious Darrell’s face white, whispering “They’ve only got room for one of us,” seemingly implying that the group of friends can allow only one black person into the circle, but that doesn’t jibe with her adolescent experience, when it seemed there wasn’t room for ANY black people. She goes on to talk about how hard it is to not be seen by the other kids, but the problem wasn’t that she was ignored; it was that she was singled out for ridicule.
No doubt the “whiteface” scene was thrown in when Spencer was cast in an effort to acknowledge the racial elephant in the room, but because Sue Ann wasn’t written as black, the requisite level of forethought wasn’t put into this aspect of the story and thus it feels muddled and nonsensical. I wanted Ma to be about the legacy of racism coming back to haunt a small town; that would’ve added extra bite to the script to push it from mere entertainment into the sort of “edutainment” that has proven so fruitful for Jordan Peele.
Ma, however, seems to go out of its way to avoid implying that racism could be simmering beneath the surface of this small town; even though it was filmed in the racial hotbed of Mississippi, the setting was changed to the much more reputation-neutral Ohio. To be clear: I didn’t want the white characters to go running around hurling “N” words; I mostly just wanted Sue Ann to give some sort of acknowledgment that she sensed that her ostracism had something to do with race. To that end, “They’ve only got room for one of us” could’ve become something more along the lines of “This is the only way you’ll fit in” as she paints Darrell’s face.
As it is, Darrell’s race largely goes to waste from a narrative perspective. As with so many black characters in horror (and other genres, for that matter), his defining characteristic is that he’s black. Within the group, there are two wild party kids, two “good” kids and…Darrell, the black guy.
I suppose you shouldn’t expect much racial nuance from the director of The Help (Tate Taylor) — nor, frankly, from Spencer, who produced the problematic white savior film Green Book. As such, any perceived deconstruction of the “mammy” stereotype through Sue Ann seems more coincidental than intentional.
With all that said, Ma is still a blast as a yell-at-the-screen popcorn film. It hits all the expected beats of the psycho stalker thriller as Sue Ann steadily packs her bags for the inevitable trip to Crazy Town, but although we can figure out where it’s heading, it manages to throw in a refreshing sense of mystery, unraveling the truth behind her past trauma in bits and pieces. In doing so, it paints Sue Ann as a sympathetic antagonist — a rarity for a genre that relies on unhinged, rabbit-boiling mania. She’s an antihero of sorts who allows us to experience a sense of cathartic “vengeance by proxy” against the bullies of our past.
And Spencer delivers with a sterling performance that probably won’t be nominated for anything but frankly is more impressive than what felt like five minutes of screen time in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Shape of Water. She earns our laughs, our empathy, our curiosity, our terror, and all while playing the central character rather than the cinematic caddy roles she typically gets.
Having lived through the lean times of black presence in horror, I can appreciate the significance of having a black villain carry a horror movie — and a black woman in particular. In a genre where the baddies are typically more heralded than the heroes, it’s heartening to see a black face as the focal point in a mainstream horror movie poster — and for that, we can thank Spencer, who lobbied for a film where she finally gets to be the lead. Ma isn’t a body-count slasher, so Sue Ann isn’t on par with the Jasons, Michael Myerses and Freddies of the world as far as cult potential goes, but she more than holds her own, lending a welcome humanity to the villainy.
Even though Ma could’ve been more from a social commentary perspective, I still enjoyed it both as a hoot of a pulpy thriller and as a fascinating racial case study that’s ultimately as much about its interpretation as its intent.