We Need to Talk About ‘Ma’

Quarantine from COVID-19 means screening the films I missed last year — and reading them to filth.

Quarantine from COVID-19 means screening the films I missed last year — and reading them to filth.

Octavia Spencer, in ‘Ma’

Bullying is wrong, people. Its victims suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Some even commit suicide. It’s just plain wrong.

But you already know that. You learned it from your parents, your teachers, and every after-school special that was ever made.

But did you also know that bullying causes homicidal mania?

Age regression?

How about Munchausen syndrome by proxy?

For Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinary technician, the psychological repercussions of the bullying she once endured as the only African-American student in her high school are endless. And that’s the moral of Ma — that some emotional wounds cut so deep, the only cure is to exact bloody revenge upon the tormenters of your past, their offspring, and, as in Sue Ann’s case, even your own daughter.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not the moral of the story at all. Maybe the message I’m supposed to glean from director Tate Taylor’s fifth full-length film is an exponentially more loaded one: that targets of racism become psychopaths.

And that’s the trouble with Ma. That even though it earns its screams and showcases some top-notch acting — not only from Spencer, but also from Juliette Lewis (who, if given the right vehicle, will nab an Oscar one day) and the young Diana Silvers — it doesn’t tell a story about the black experience, but instead merely flirts with the idea of doing it. The result, unfortunately, is that race becomes the pink elephant in the film: we all know that Sue Ann’s skin color was the real reason she was bullied in high school, but, except for a moment near the end of the film, when one of the ways that race figures into the story is explicitly shown in Sue Ann’s treatment of the only one of her victims who is African American, it’s like no one’s supposed to talk about race — not the characters, and definitely not us.

In case you didn’t gather the entire plot from the trailer that circulated in theaters (remember going to movie theaters? — how quaint), Ma is about a teenage girl named Maggie (Silvers) and her mother, Erica (Lewis), who return to Erica’s Ohio hometown after she divorces Maggie’s father. Maggie quickly falls in with the self-proclaimed popular kids in school. On their first outing, they loiter outside of a convenience store, asking passersby to buy them booze. And that’s when Sue Ann appears. After fulfilling their request, she leads them back to her secluded house, where she offers up her basement for them to party in, anytime they want. The teens can hardly believe their luck — that is, until Sue Ann starts to exhibit some serious stage-five-clinger behavior. Through a series of flashbacks, we finally learn why Sue Ann has turned out the way she is, just in time for her to go completely off the rails.

Where the film succeeds, besides in its performances, is its plot — it’s a concept that hasn’t been overdone in the horror genre — as well as the true-to-life dialogue between the teens. From the sex-positive ditz, Hailey (McKaley Miller) — “How did you wait so long?” she asks a classmate who’s just told her that she let her boyfriend go down on her on their five month anniversary — to the sexually fluid Chaz (Gianni Paolo), it’s easy to imagine young moviegoers identifying with the characters, which can only make the thrills more thrilling. And, at a brisk ninety-nine minutes long, the film is tightly edited and only starts to drag when the teens keep returning to Ma’s house even after it’s become abundantly clear that she’s nuts.

But then there’s the racism thing. First, it’s important you know one detail about the film: its screenwriter, Scotty Landes, originally wrote the titular role for a white woman. It wasn’t until Taylor, who has cast Spencer in four of his previous films, brought her on so that she could flex some acting muscles that audiences might not have known she has. I didn’t learn this detail until after I had seen the film, which was when I could finally say, “Aha! Now I see why my mind feels like it’s about to explode.” The fact that Sue Ann is the only African American in her high school isn’t something we’re supposed to regard as inconsequential to the bullying; it wasn’t even part of the original script. So when it seems like the filmmakers are suggesting that racism wasn’t a thing in the Eighties, or when Sue Ann is consistently depicted as lazy in comparison to her hardworking, white boss (Allison Janney, another frequent colleague of Taylor’s, in a bit part), it’s not ignorance, it’s laziness on the part of the filmmakers, who barely adjusted the story to fit the change in casting. Which, in this case, turns out to be a serious problem. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where an actor’s race is irrelevant to the role, but we’re not there yet. Race still matters.

Today, when directors like Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins are making films that tackle complex issues like cultural appropriation, colonization, and homophobia in the African American community, it really shows when a director mishandles the topic of race. Especially if he’s a white director, like Taylor is. Yes, Taylor did direct the 2011 film, The Help, which earned Spencer an Oscar and Viola Davis a nomination. And yes, that film was about racism in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi. But, like the book it was based on — written by the white author, Kathryn Stockett, a childhood friend of Taylor’s — it trivializes the drama by highlighting the humorous aspects of the story, so that the antagonists seem more like villains in a Pixar film than the brutally racist white Mississippians they actually are.

So, if you’re looking for a decent thriller that will also make you chuckle, don’t miss out on Ma. But if you’re looking for a social commentary on race — which is what the film should be — then be prepared to finish the film feeling either confused or ticked off.

I guess that’s what happens when a white director tries to make a film about racism. I guess it’s just another way that race still matters.