What interests me most about the uninteresting, slick films made by the writer and director Tate Taylor and the actress Octavia Spencer is their relationship just outside the frame. The two are longtime friends and former roommates. The first film Taylor cast Spencer in was a short called “Chicken Party,” from 2003, “a comedic look at crime, love, tolerance and fried chicken,” according to IMDb. The theme of warm, wisecracking racial reunion received high gloss in their most successful collaboration, “The Help” (2011), an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s beach novel about black maids and their white bosses setting aside their differences in nineteen-sixties Mississippi. “The Help” relegates the turbulence of the civil-rights era to a chaste backdrop for the vibrant liberations of its affluent housewives. But Spencer’s portrayal of her nurturer character, Minny Jackson, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, was arch and humane, convincing me that the performer and the director, a gay white man, might have been engaged in a coy kind of collusion—not artistic subversion, necessarily, but a knowing and savvy packaging of the sentimentalism that sells.
This feeling intensified with the release, in February, of the trailer for Taylor and Spencer’s fifth project together, the revenge thriller “Ma,” in which Spencer stars as a troubled woman exacting violence on a band of (mostly) white teen-agers. This new film, made with the horror production company Blumhouse, seemed like it might retroactively darken “The Help,” revealing its sassy liberal picture to have been, all along, a slightly sadistic work of performance art. Octavia Spencer as Jackson, squinting witheringly at her employer, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), when the poor moll suggests that they burn the fried chicken a little so that Foote’s husband might be duped into thinking she and not Minnie had made it? That was not Spencer’s complacent portrayal of a mammy figure but her sly wink at the cinematic ghosts of Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers. And Spencer’s monologue in that scene, which contends that the health of the black woman’s soul is directly proportional to the integrity of her fowl (“Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life”)? That was not a florid racial stereotype but one of the more ferocious parodies in recent American cinema. “Ma” would be the payoff we were waiting for, a crashing cinematic retribution, and not just for the fictional woman. Unlike in Taylor and Spencer’s preceding projects, this time the teat would serve poison.
No such luck. From the vantage point of the Southern gothic, “The Help” is a horror tale about the legacy of chattel labor. If Bill Gunn, the godfather of avant-garde horror, had lived long enough—if the studio system had supported him—he might have ingeniously restyled a film like “The Help,” unearthing the hell in the kitchen. Instead, we have Taylor and Spencer, who, with “Ma,” which opens in wide release this weekend, seem too fearful of their own premise to make good on the trouble that the teasers portended. Spencer is plenty of fun as the traumatized outcast and failed mother Sue Ann, a.k.a. Ma. But her character is hardly existentially dangerous, because the film, counter to its big-talk advertising, tenders no political information. The enormity of Sue Ann’s blackness is downgraded to a flat shorthand for general difference. The shocks of the movie are crass and somatic, not disconcerting or social. Taylor and Spencer’s detour to horror drifts, ever backward, into the zone of schmaltz. The garbled and timid movie is one of the few mainstream horror films to star a black woman, the media coverage announces, but that does not mean we should mistake it for being a contribution to black horror.
“Ma” was predominantly shot in Natchez, Mississippi, a short drive from where Taylor lives and runs his production company, Wyolah Films. (The business shares a name with Taylor’s residence, Wyolah Plantation, the antebellum structure euphemistically referred to as “Mississippi Mansion” in a profile in Architectural Digest, from 2016.) “Ma,” tellingly, is set not in the South but in Ohio. By situating their story in the Midwest, the writers can detach their narrative from histories of lynching and mob violence, which would only complicate the simple motivations they’ve assigned to their villain. The film’s script, by Scott Landes, had created Sue Ann as a white woman (which explains that name); Taylor later updated the character to suit Spencer. “She had expressed to me she was frustrated,” Taylor told the A.P., adding, “Women of color just don’t get the lead unless they’re a slave or a maid.” But Spencer emphasized that the things Taylor changed “weren’t based on race.” She continued, “It was just giving her a backstory, to give her a reason, in her mind, as to why she takes such a dark turn.” Somehow, the film promises that Sue Ann’s race will be pivotal and ends up rendering it all but inconsequential.
The film begins with Maggie (Diana Silvers), a white teen-ager who has moved with her single mother, Erica, (Juliette Lewis), to Erica’s suburban home town. Erica, who finds a job at the town casino, is too overworked to be vigilant. Maggie attends the local high school, and, in the afternoons, cruises with her friends by the liquor store, where they beg adults to buy them handles. The only one who obliges is Sue Ann, a homely woman in an outdated wig and pastel scrubs, who works as a veterinary tech at the clinic across the way. In the first act, Sue Ann is a harmless pragmatist—the kids are going to drink, so she might as well make sure that they’re safe while doing it. She invites the crew to party in the basement of her house, which sits on an isolated plot of land, far from anyone else. Maggie hesitates, but her crush, Andy Hawkins (Corey Fogelmanis), and their friends Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Darrell (Dante Brown), and Haley (McKayley Miller) wave away her misgivings. Sue Ann is nice, even if she’s pathetic. She only has a couple of rules: never go upstairs, and always call her “Ma.”
The white kids aren’t afraid to let their guard down around Ma because they don’t see her as a figure of agency. She serves their bacchanal—soon the whole school is drinking at her home on weeknights—and adapts her life around the contours of their needs, which is why they ignore all the ways in which Ma is off. She stalks their social media, annoying her boss, played by a grumpy Allison Janney. Sometimes, she shows up at their hangout spot unannounced. She starts dressing like her idea of the popular white girl, swapping her medical uniforms for jeans and leopard print. Then one night at Ma’s, Maggie takes a shot of alcohol, and her vision goes black. She wakes up at home the next morning, her stud earrings gone and her knees bruised. The group agrees to block Ma on social media. But Ma, now a terror awakened, blasts through their defenses. She has deduced that the parents of some of these children are responsible for a horrific public trauma that she suffered while in school—the same high school these kids now attend. And so both generations will have to pay.
“Ma” is Spencer’s first starring role, and it is amazing to see her flex acting muscles we have not seen before. Well, not exactly: the physical wit of Spencer in this film lies in her expert distortions of the mother-hen choreography familiar from films like “The Help”—the bustling, the sighing, the kissing of the teeth. She is particularly awesome in the film’s torture scenes, in which Sue Ann makes perverse use of skills she might have learned in home economics. Spencer imbues her character with deviancy, sympathy, wrath, grief. Like Allison Williams’s character in “Get Out,” Sue Ann uses her visibility as invisibility; she camouflages her power by seemingly conforming to peoples’ idea of her, this lone and unremarkable assistant. A reluctance to probe the psychological underbelly of the story prohibits Spencer, and “Ma,” from taking their full, demented flight. The movie hints that the bullying Sue Ann experiences has a history, entrenched in the cruelty of desirability politics. Sue Ann keeps the white teen-agers hostage by putting them in chains; there are cheap references to whiteface and to African masks. But if this director-actor pair wanted to go there, then they should have gone deeper. Where is their comment on servility and consumption, on apathy and envy? Sue Ann is certainly the only black adult we see in town, but she may as well have been targeted as a child on account of her heavy bangs or thick glasses, for all “Ma” is willing to say. Taylor and Spencer don’t seem to realize that they wouldn’t have had to abandon their film’s silliness or its camp gore in order to feel the intellectual pressure of race.
Sue Ann’s original victim—spoilers ahead—is a black girl who virtually no one realizes exists, a teen-ager named Genie, played courageously by Tanyell Waivers. Sue Ann confuses protecting Genie from the world with abusing her. In the end, it’s Genie who initiates the fall of Ma’s mad house, a nice karmic turn that the film undermines with the comforting embrace of a white savior. The trauma that Sue Ann absorbed won’t be inherited; her terror concludes in a blaze reminiscent of the final scene of “Carrie,” with a gratuitous magical-Negro flourish. Was “Ma” a real woman? The vaguely supernatural ending suggests that she may have been more, but the film won’t venture further, won’t consider the influence of the ancestral grudges that could have motivated its central creature. In some ways, “Ma” is the perfect misfire for our cultural moment. It signals allegorical importance. It makes a grand judgment about representation. It exploits the vogue for elevated versions of so-called populist genre fare. It makes all of these virtuous gestures, and, because it is so busy making a spectacular event of its existence, it neglects to attend to its meaning.