Film & TV

Ma’s Black-Mammy Stereotypes Capture the Illiberal Spirit

Octavia Spencer in Ma (Universal Pictures)
In this revenge satire, Octavia Spencer gives Hollywood the cliché it deserves.

The formerly underground, now mainstream, satirist John Waters stunned the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards gathering when he described the black-ghetto horror film Precious as a comedy. Too bad Waters missed the opportunity to expand his iconoclastic critique. He let Ma — sort of a bizarre sequel to Precious — fall into the inept hands of director Tate Taylor.

Taylor, who directed the sickeningly sanctimonious The Help in 2011, doesn’t seem to get that Ma operates as a black-mammy stereotype. It is played by The Help’s hard-staring Octavia Spencer, first seen dressed in pink slacks and print scrubs, walking a three-legged dog from her job as a veterinarian’s assistant. This perverse matriarchal figure turns mammy stereotypes upside down: Not benevolent in the Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Butterfly McQueen tradition, she’s sneakily malevolent, a woman who takes service employment to mean subservient. And her resentment is lethal.

Waters is so outré that he stays ahead of the progressive curve. He would understand Ma to be a comedy of revenge (like his slatterns in Female Trouble), while Taylor lags behind in Hollywood’s race-and-gender sweepstakes and directs for pathos.

Spencer’s post-Obama Mammy indulges the underage teens in her small town — buying liquor for them and inviting them to use her basement as a place to party. She concocts a scheme to get back at their parents who had, a generation before, subjected her to unforgettable humiliation. (And it continues when the circle of cruel, fickle teenagers text “Everybody block Ma for good!”)

Screenwriter Scotty Landes captures a mischievous animus that may be the illiberal spirit of the age. You see it in the peculiar ways that race resentment is presented in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (surely a title worthy of John Waters’s mischief) and Sorry to Bother You, a better dark social comedy. These vengeance-satires convey some barely understood reaction to America’s racial history; they follow the Obama nostrum “to make a more perfect union” by either rewriting history or extracting revenge. This effort provokes continuous guilt and so gets official approval from the media industry and its Ava DuVernay–Jordan Peele enablers.

Ma’s humor works best in its trailer, while the film itself is only fitfully funny. This isn’t only a matter of Taylor and Landes’s ineptitude and incoherence; Ma is the most strikingly conflicted Hollywood movie of the season for what it reveals about today’s confused feminist and racial sympathies. (Taylor previously directed the gender-class-race abomination The Girl on the Train.) Ma’s treachery represents Hollywood progressivism gone wrong.

Ma’s name, Sue Ann Ellington, is a contrivance that combines the socially banal with the culturally extraordinary. But its irony doesn’t resonate — certainly not for kids in the Black Lives Matter audience whose cultural illiteracy impairs their sense of history and selfhood. (Ma’s basement-party seduction happens when she dons a perfectly sporty cap and DJs “Funky Town,” a post-disco hit from before her drunken revelers were born.) This generation’s inability to connect contemporary fright with traditional offense is exactly the same naivete of moviegoers who think the googly-eyed blacks of Get Out and Us are heroes but are unaware that they merely update the Sambo stereotype.

Social anxiety inspires the popularity of the new race-horror-comedy genre (as well as zombie films and the Game of Thrones’ gothic apocalypse). Do-gooder films such as Moonlight and Green Book sublimate this anxiety, but it is at Ma’s messy core. “You think I’m Madea!” she taunts the kids — as well as mocking Tyler Perry’s gynophobic clown caricature. Ma seeks revenge for her own sexual mortification, revealed in a high-school flashback and the subjugation of her offspring (a semi-crippled, possibly biracial daughter). Living a life of revulsion, Ma retaliates in a climactic orgy of violence that includes pawing a young jock’s “perfect skin, perfect belly” and finally consummating-avenging her desire for the kid’s father (Luke Evans) that she has repressed ever since their school days.

But the pièce de résistance is when Ma splashes white paint on the face of the token black teen Darrell (Dante Brown): “Sorry, Darrell, there’s only room for one of us.” No wonder Ma hasn’t become a blockbuster; its reel insanity is too real.

Screening-room attendees who scoffed at Ma’s illogic (her house unaccountably filled with spooky African masks) had already fallen for the absurdities of Us and Get Out. Ma is on the same continuum of Hollywood’s race hyperconsciousness.

Ma feels like déjà vu: The career breakthrough of character actress Spencer came in the critically acclaimed The Help, in which she played a black domestic cook in the 1960s American South who gets revenge on her segregationist employer by baking a shit pie. It was a psychotic act, applauded by social-justice warriors, perhaps anticipating the punch-a-Nazi, Antifa campaigns. Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for pushing the progressive idea of vengeance on America’s segregationist history. She puts credible sorrow into Ma’s tirade: “They can’t even see you when you’re standing right beside them.” Ma’s satire doesn’t really work. Be grateful for that.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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