*Editor's note: Spoilers below for the movie Ma*
One day, a movie “starring Octavia Spencer" will actually star Octavia Spencer, but today is not that day and Ma is not that movie.
The groundwork is there: Octavia Spencer; a title character; a compelling concept (a victim of unprocessed childhood trauma enacts revenge on her tormentors and their children). And yet, Ma never really gets to be about Ma—or Sue Ann, the actual name of Spencer's character.
Much like Spencer's last film Green Book (she executive produced the project), Ma director Tate Taylor seems to believe that the name of the movie does the work of story framing and character development—not surprising, considering that Taylor also directed the infamous white savior movie, The Help.
So, Ma opens like a Twilight redux, following a white teen girl as she moves to a misty new town with her single parent, attends a new high school and makes some new, popular teen friends. It's at least 10 minutes before Spencer's character even shows up on the screen for the purpose of buying the Bella Swan look-alike and her crew some alcohol. Sue Ann soon disappears, in order to give the audience more time to learn about and care about these kids, signaling that Bella's journey with her friends is at the center of this movie and Ma is just the big bad who becomes obsessed with them, making the film little more than a cautionary tale for white teens about underage drinking and stranger danger.
This is even more of a disappointment considering what the movie could have been. In high school, Sue Ann was seemingly the only Black girl in her all-white school and now is the only Black woman in her all-white town. The bullying she faced both in school and at work is framed as the consequences of being “unpopular" when racism and misogynoir were right there for the same producers of Get Out to mine.
It's also revealed that Sue Ann has a daughter that she's trapped in an awful Dee Dee Blanchard and Gypsy Rose scenario, where Sue Ann drugs her daughter, makes her daughter use a wheelchair and keeps her daughter out of school. Whereas Hulu just made an entire prestige drama series on this real-life story, Ma relegates this horror to little more than an unexplained plot twist—and a C-plot at best. Why is Sue Ann doing this to her daughter? Well, to give the audience an opportunity to learn more about Bella and fear for her safety, of course. If Sue Ann could hurt her own child, what would she do to Bella?
Bella's first day at school happens to be the one day Sue Ann's daughter gets to go to school too. They meet because the daughter is “trapped" in the hallway because her wheelchair has dead batteries and she's continuing the charade of needing a wheelchair so her mother won't get upset. Bella asks if the daughter needs help and gives her a push. See? Bella's not a mean girl like the ones who hurt Sue Ann in high school. At the film's climax, when the daughter and all of the kids trapped in Sue Ann's home are trying to escape, Bella gets to save the daughter, proving you can totally be both popular and nice! That's right before Bella stabs Sue Ann, but thankfully the daughter gives Sue Ann a final blow, so Bella doesn't have to feel guilty about murder or anything.
As Ma bleeds out, she runs upstairs to where she's holding hostage her old high school crush who sexually abused her. As her house burns down around her, she snuggles up to the probably already dead crush-abuser with as little regard for what's happened to her daughter as the film's writer Scott Landes. And all I can think about is what could have been.
Imagine a horror film layered with poignant social commentary that centers on the racist childhood trauma of a Black mother and the terrifying lengths she'll go to in order to protect her daughter from the all-white small town they can't escape. After a series of racist microaggressions, she snaps, seeking revenge on her white tormentors and their children, who treat her like a mammy. Call me ‘Ma' one more time...
In more capable hands, that's what Ma could have been. Instead, we get a severely traumatized woman whose goal isn't even revenge, it's to be popular in high school at her big age. “Ma" is the name she happily adopts for herself after one of the entitled high school jocks mockingly calls her that. Her lust for revenge is only activated 30 years after her initial trauma because these high school kids she lets drink and party in her home are ungrateful.
But Ma isn't a total waste of time: Sue Ann painting the face of the Black kid in Bella's crew with white paint because “there can only be one" Black person in the white friend group and she's it, might be the funniest thing I've ever seen. I’ve also recently convinced many a friend to come out and party with me using Sue Ann’s signature sing-songy catchphrase, “Don’t make me drink alooooone!” Still, choosing to frame the story as Bella's over the much more compelling story of Sue Ann and how she came to be is a mistake that Spencer, Taylor and Hollywood in general keep making. And everyone suffers for it.
Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.