Over the last couple of years, many of our conversations with others about culture, art, and politics come back to the 2019 film Ma. So often, we find ourselves asking people, “Have you seen Ma?” Frequently, the answer is no, which sets our hearts aflutter. We get to show someone Ma for the first time.
We both saw the trailer for Ma around the same time in 2019, and while there were some red flags (The Help’s Tate Taylor once again directing Black people, Octavia Spencer in a bangéd wig, brutal violence), nothing could prepare either of us for how political, moving, and raw the 1 hour 40 minute-long Spencer vehicle would be. In the two years since its release, we haven’t been able to shake Ma’s impact. Between the two of us, we’ve seen the film at least six times, with each viewing feeling as fresh as when we first laid eyes on Ma’s basement.
On its face, Ma seems like a classic teen horror movie. A pretty white girl, Maggie (Diana Silvers), moves to the hometown of her single mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis). Erica works days at a local casino and Maggie quickly befriends a group of classmates — Haley, Darrell, Chaz, and Andy (all of whom are white except Darrell, who is Black, which is important).
The kids are looking for an adult to buy them booze, which is when Maggie meets Ma (née Sue Ann). Ma is a lonely vet-tech who spends her days being verbally abused by her mean boss (a cameo from Allison Janney, who once said working with Tate Taylor is like “summer camp for actors” — sign us up). Quickly, Ma embeds herself in these children’s lives, inviting them and their classmates to her basement to party in a safe environment. “It calms me down so much to know that you guys aren't out there drinking and driving. I mean, to be honest, I would rather you be safe. If you're gonna do it somewhere, might as well be here, right,” she tells them the first time they come over.
The teens throw regular school-wide ragers in Ma’s basement, but she starts getting clingy; soon she’s FaceTiming, Snapchatting, and texting them constantly. Something is up with her — she’s complex.
Upstairs, Ma is hiding another one of her secrets, a daughter named Genie. Genie is a victim of Munchausen by proxy, with Ma keeping her in a wheelchair despite her being able to walk and even pulling her out of school because she is “too sick.” Perhaps a different movie would give more weight to the abuse happening in the upper level of the house, but this is not a different movie. This is Ma.
In a series of flashbacks throughout the film, we see a glimpse into Ma’s motivations. As a teenage outsider in the same town, she was befriended by the kids who are now parents of the children partying in the basement. She was sexually propositioned by Andy’s father Ben (played as an adult by Luke Evans) and ended up giving him a blow job in the dark janitor’s closet at school — only to exit and be laughed at by her peers, because actually she was giving a blow job to some random nerd. It was all a sick joke to them.
Maggie is the only one of the kids who’s suspicious of Ma (because Ma drugs Maggie at some point, steals her earrings, and is later seen wearing them in a Snap she sends the school’s teens). The film culminates in Ma drugging Maggie and her friends, holding them hostage, and violently torturing them in various ways. She also kills Ben, first threatening him with a dog blood transfusion and castration, and ultimately slitting his wrists while he lays naked in her bed.
Ma is clearly positioned as an unhinged psychopath preying on vulnerable children. But subtextually, Ma is about a traumatized Black woman who doesn’t have the resources to process her past. Although it is true that Ma maybe shouldn’t have kept children in her basement chained up by leashes —stabbing one of them, sewing another’s mouth shut, branding one with an iron — it’s hard to deny that she might have been a little right.
Let’s take into account the context of Ma’s crimes. She’s a single mother in some small town in the middle of nowhere, seemingly the only Black person in town other than Darrell and her own child that she keeps hidden from the world. She was sexually assaulted as a teenager in some sort of evil prank by her white peers.
Watching Ma as Black women, it’s hard not to empathize and see ourselves in Ma. The film actively tries to make you not only fear Ma, but believe she’s totally and irredeemably crazy. But as women who’ve experienced the cruelty of white teenagers, we relished in the depiction of a world where revenge is possible. It’s hard not to root for Ma when she runs over her teenage bully with her car, killing her instantly, and then turning on the radio to hear the jubilant tones of Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.” This scene alone was more profound than any scene from The Help, more raw than Sofia’s “All my life I had to fight” monologue in The Color Purple, and more empowering than Bernadine setting the car on fire in Waiting to Exhale.
Even though she is ultimately unsuccessful in her plot to kill the minors (God forbid we depict a successful Black woman), when she’s in the basement, she has control. The life of the party, in that moment she’s the embodiment of being a carefree Black girl — something many of us can only dream of. She’s doing the robot and dancing to “Kung Fu Fighting” while a gaggle of white teens cheer for her.
Should she have drugged, assaulted and kidnapped those teens while encouraging underaged drinking? No. But perhaps she just didn’t have the tools to process the clearly racially motivated bullying she received as a young woman. Ma may be the villain in the kids’ lives, but she is also a victim of white supremacy — and as we know, hurt people hurt people.
When it comes to discussions of Ma and its cultural impact, there is one voice that has been heard louder than the rest. Comedian and actor Ayo Edebiri (disclaimer: she is also one of Olivia’s best friends). “I was reached out to by a comedian who I really respect and he was like, ‘I tried to watch Ma after I saw your tweets about it and it was really bad. Were you just joking?’ And I was like, ‘No, I loved watching Ma,’” Edebiri said on a Zoom call.
Edebiri’s love for Ma matches ours, as you can see in her self-described “manifesto” above. “When people watch things, there's an air of like, watching and critiquing at the same time, or watching [and] knowing what your takeaway is gonna be,” Edebiri said. “And Ma… You cannot do that. Like it physically… breaks apart that part of your brain. Like it actually gets into the synapses and dismantles that. You're not allowed to have any sort of critical thought while you watch Ma.”
Once you’ve watched it though, critical thought is inescapable. “She had no choice but to do these things because of the treatment she received as a young person,” Edebiri said. “Ma is generational trauma.”
Tate Taylor, as is his modus operandi, shies away from almost any explicit mention of race in the film. There are only two moments, both shared with Darrell (notably the only character to even think to ask what her name is), that suggest race exists at all in this universe.
First, when the teens are giving Ma excuses as to why they can’t come over, one of them says that he has to write a paper about the “historical shipping routes of Africa.” Darrell looks to Ma and says, “Yeah, all those ships with our people in the belly. Ain’t that right, Sue Ann?” Ma quickly changes the subject.
The second comes at the climax of the movie, where Ma is torturing the teens in her basement. Instead of violently assaulting Darrell, she slathers his face in white paint, telling him, “I’m sorry, Darrell. They’ve only got room for one of us.” This moment, and crucially the gravity that Spencer gives it, goes in tandem with Genie’s Munchausen by proxy. In Ma’s ill mind, she is protecting both her daughter and Darrell from suffering the cruelty of a world run by white people. Misguided, yes, but her heart is in the right place.
In 2019, The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix was one of the few Black women who reviewed Ma, contributing to its current score of 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. At the time, she wrote, “In some ways, ‘Ma’ is the perfect misfire for our cultural moment. It signals allegorical importance. It makes a grand judgment about representation.” She now tells us she’s watched Ma at least five times over the last two years. “I love seeing people react to seeing Ma for the first time,” she tells us over FaceTime.
In speaking on how the film has stuck in her mind, St. Félix referenced Pauline Kael’s review of the 1976 film Sparkle. “She's just like, this movie is so shitty. It's so stereotypical, it's awful. But when I walked out of the theater, I cried because I loved it. There's just like, yeah, sometimes that's just what it is.”
Although St. Félix’s original review wasn’t exactly a positive one, she shares our unshakable attraction to Ma’s enduring legacy. It’s not a film that can be contained by the simplistic framework of “good” or “bad” — it’s a cleansing experience to be shared with people you love. Edebiri agrees: “I think Ma is like the ultimate exercise in being a viewer and just being along for the ride.”
For us, it doesn’t matter what film Taylor was trying to make. Ma belongs to us now. Black women like us are reclaiming Ma in spite of its flaws every day. St. Félix said it best: “In some ways, Ma’s cultural impact is deeper than Get Out. You can’t rewatch Get Out in 2021 but Ma, I will be watching in ten years.”