Last week I read the news that the incredibly talented actress Octavia Spencer was going to be playing the lead role in Ma, a psychological horror film by Blumhouse Productions, I practically did a little dance in my car. I was squealing with joy. The intensely disturbing, albeit genius, trailer scared the life out of me and it is definitely not for the faint of heart, although I agree with some other folks who said that the trailer gives a bit too much away about the film (i.e. did Ma kill the kids at the end of the movie or are they just taking a nap while she laughs and says “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time”?). The trailer has spoilers but it’s definitely worth a watch. I didn’t embed it here because it actually is scary and I didn’t want to bodyslam anyone who is squeamish by putting it directly on this page. Still, it’s worth a watch if you’re interested.
For those who don’t know, Octavia Spencer has traditionally been typecast as The Black Caretaker, or The Mammy, a trope that in the past Hollywood producers and writers would often use constantly to appeal to white audiences. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, a black woman, won an Oscar only because she played a role that typecast her as a Mammy figure to take care of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Flash forward to 2011, and we’ve got the film The Help. In The Help, Octavia Spencer plays a domestic who tends to a white family along with many other black woman domestics, including Viola Davis. As much as I wanted to criticize the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, as well as the film, for its depictions of black women, I knew it was rooted at a time in history when black women weren’t given a voice (hence Emma Stone’s character writing their narratives for them) and remembered Stockett saying after the book’s end that she is only writing from a historical perspective and acknowledges she, as a white woman, has not had to experience what black women had to go through at the time. Octavia Spencer also stars as a cleaner in The Shape of Water; again, historically rooted at a time when domestic and cleaning jobs were the only jobs available for black people.
I don’t normally watch horror movies but this film really makes a good social commentary about how we should recognize the versatility of black actresses instead of always putting them in films about Jim Crow and slavery. While those movies are of course important for understanding our nation’s history of oppression and capitalism, we also need to do a better job giving black people roles that challenge these traditional narratives, such as scary movies, a genre in which black people have often not been featured in as major characters. It’s why seeing Get Out was such a great film and why it’s one of the few horror films I could stomach, because it addresses racism in its subtlest forms, an issue that is just as scary as any blood and guts film. I might not be able to see Us after the trailer (although I do love that Lupita Nyong’o is starring in the film because she is a really great actress), but it definitely must be said that if Blumhouse Productions can produce three movies with lead black characters in them (Get Out, Us, and Ma) within just a couple of years, then this is truly going to be the 21st century for black people in horror films.
In this film, Octavia Spencer stars as a older black woman who buys booze for these four random teenagers even though she is not interested at first. But then she invites them to stay at her place and lets them throw parties there. However, these teens find out this woman isn’t as nice as they think. These teens think that Ma, the title character, will take care of them, but in reality she messes with their minds as a warning that they shouldn’t have bothered her in the first place. Although I do think it’s pretty brilliant how Tate Taylor went from directing this film about black women as servants who didn’t get credit for their voices until a young white woman wrote a book about their experiences for them (The Help), to a film that takes that trope of the Mammy figure and turns it entirely on its head by having the supposedly sweet gentle Mammy figure turn out to be someone you don’t want to mess with (Ma).
Will I see the film when it comes out? Maybe, probably not at night though. I want to be able to still go to sleep at night remembering Octavia Spencer not as her role in The Help, but as the incredible mathematician Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures, the only other role I’ve seen her in where we can see her phenomenal acting chops in action (no pun intended). Hidden Figures isn’t scary; it’s a historical drama that is supposed to inspire you. Ma will be though, but I’m not sad that it’s scary because it’s about time we had more black women play lead characters in these kinds of films.
If you want more context about why Spencer’s casting in Ma is so important in addressing old Hollywood racial stereotypes, watch Spencer rock an amazing monologue while wearing a fashionable leather jacket on Saturday Night Live.