Thanks to Get Out and Us, you might have come to expect more horror films with black characters playing lead roles and not dying within the first five minutes of the film. Tate Taylor’s, Ma aimed to continue with that trend by casting Octavia Spencer as the main antagonist of the film. We’ve seen her in amazing, but stereotypical roles like in “The Help”, but we’ve never seen her like this.
Ma is about a middle-aged black veterinarian assistant named Sue Ann. She ends up befriending a group of high school kids (all of which are white except one) and allows them to drink, do drugs and party in her basement. There’s only three rules, no cursing, no drunk driving and never go upstairs.
The film starts off with teen, Maggie (Diane Silvers) moving to her mom’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown after her parents’ divorce. Maggie makes friends with a group of rowdy, but well meaning kids and they first meet Ma after asking her to buy them alcohol from their local corner store. At first the kids love partying at Ma’s, until she becomes extremely clingy. She sends them videos and texts constantly and develops a crush on one of the boys, Andy.
Throughout the film are flashbacks of young Sue Ann in high school. She is coy and sweet and surrounded by her white classmates with whom she doesn’t belong. Despite the painfully obvious condescending tone her classmates use when they speak to her, she tries desperately to fit in. She attempts to gain the affections of her crush Ben, a popular guy in school and, surprise, Andy’s father. Apparently, almost all of Maggie’s new friends’ parents including her mom, went to high school with Sue Ann. They took part in a prank that traumatized her and possibly drove her inappropriate interest in the kids of her bullies.
High school revenge horror films is not a new concept. Movies like Carrie all have shown us the effects of bullying the quiet girl. But Ma skews the narrative by giving us subtle racial hints without explicitly giving us the satisfaction of Sue Ann taking her anger out on these white children, because they are white. Rather there’s almost a color-blind concept, as if this could have happened to anyone. Sue Ann was the only black person at her high school, and we never see any other black people in the town except Darrell, a member of Maggie’s new friend group. The only time Sue Ann actually mentions race at all is towards the end of the film. During her torturous rant she tells Darrell, “there’s only room for one of us.”
If you were hoping to get a film about a mad black woman getting revenge on white people for racism, then you’re looking in the wrong place. Well sort of. The narrative seemed like it would focus in on the racist undertones of her high school bullies. Instead we’re given a simple revenge story where the main antagonist just happens to be a black woman. We’re never really sure how much of the revenge she planned and if any of it is racially motivated. Octavia Spencer’s performance saves the film from falling flat. As far as thriller’s go, Ma is predictable but in an unpredictable way.