The Trouble with the Movie MA


I never finished watching The Help.

This wasn’t due to trying, it was mostly out of frustration and exhaustion. I hate the “noble negro” archetype used in the film, one of black people putting aside their personal wellbeing and happiness for the benefit of a white person. When one of the characters declines payment for her contributions because she “just wants to tell her story”, I nearly rolled my eyes out of the back of my head. It was a white fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, a magical place where systemic racism doesn’t exist and minor characters are happy to serve in the background. I was also slightly insulted that a movie like that could exist when so many people were having conversations about Crash, another white fantasy race conciliation film. Several years later one of the stars of The Help, Viola Davis, spoke out in 2018 about her regrets of being involved with that film. In an interview with the New York Times, she spoke of her current opinions of the film as, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.” These sentiments were largely shared by black audiences who were exhausted of movie narratives where black people’s stories were marginalized for a white protagonist. Later, in 2018 a film came out that would go on spark some of the same debate, stoking more controversy by winning a Best Picture Oscar. That movie being Green Book, which was produced by the Help actress and MA star, Octavia Spencer. Her new starring role in MA, reunites her with The Help director Tate Taylor.

To this day, no one has asked Tate Taylor about the controversy of The Help. The responsibility seems to be squarely on its black cast to answer for the racial blindspots of the narrative. This so obviously is misplaced as he adapted the book, directed the movie, and is solely responsible for guiding its narrative. It’s almost too ironic that a movie so steeped in white supremacy would be placed as the fault of its black stars and not it’s white creator. Tate Taylor, whose lifelong dream was described in this Architectural Digest video, to live in a plantation, and the one that he calls home was the location where 81 kidnaped African slaves were forced to work for Dr. Francis B. Coleman. A home he lovingly shows off in the video, that he calls part of “his heritage” and named his production company after. For the sake of clarification I will repeat: The man who made a racially tone-deaf movie, lives in a renovated plantation where 81 African slaves were held and forced to work, and he honored this place by naming his production company after to mark each of his films with the legacy of the cruel, violent and racist history of the south that he so proudly refers to as his “heritage”.

Tate Taylor’s next film is MA. The trailer tells the story of a young white girl who gets in over her head by getting involved with the dangerously violent and unhinged character of MA, played by Spencer. In horror movies there has to be a motivating icon of fear to move the tension along, a chainsaw throwing maniac, a psychotic knife-wielding man in his dead mothers dress, a homicidal doll possessed by the spirit of a killer, a ghost seeking vengeance for having his hand cut off and stung to death by bees, creatures that hunt on sound and can locate you with the tiniest whisper, MA relies on something else, something harder to identify but equally as insidious, the icon of fear in MA is black women.

From early in the trailer, Maggie knows there’s something wrong with Ma. Is it her friendliness? Her proclivity to hang out with teenagers despite the fact that she’s a middle-aged woman? Her respectful request to keep the party downstairs and not have a bunch of drunk kids in her living room? No. For Maggie, there’s something else… something she just can’t put her finger on that scares her about Ma. When Ma does show her savage side and torments the white teens and their single token black friend, we understand Maggie. She was right about this scary black woman all along. Like a clown in a sewer offering you a balloon, you should know better than to be friendly to a black woman. This stereotype of the “crazy, angry black woman” is one that has tormented black women for decades. You’ve seen the effects from Serena Williams to Maxine Waters, if a black woman gets angry, regardless of legitimacy, it’s out of line and needs correction. Kimberly Seals Allers writes in her article, Black Women Have Never Had The Privilege Of Rage: “Our female fury is seen as threatening, not radical ― as disconnected from reason, devoid of any intellectual underpinnings. The weight of being viewed as angry, often by white women, has prevented us from demanding an equal seat at the policymaking table.” In horror, when a woman gets angry this is an indication that she is finally going to start fighting back, that she is no longer a victim, but in MA it’s a signifier that we the audience should be afraid. MA relies on racist stereotypes of black women to get the audience anxious and afraid. Instead of relying on the archetype of the black mammy from The Help, Taylor has now moved on to the sapphire. He can’t seem to get close to depicting black women with the slightest bit of humanity.

The second troubling idea from the film is the further stigmatization of black mental health. Ma is obviously a disturbed woman, who has unknown reasons for hating teens or committing acts of violence against them. Many horror movie characters are disturbed, rarely are we supposed to be afraid of them just because they might have a mental illness. In real life, a person with mental illness is much more likely to the victim of a violent crime than to commit one. According to the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: “Patients with severe mental illness constitute a high-risk group vulnerable to fall victims to violence in the community.” Combined together with the fact that Adult Black/African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, you have a depiction of blackness that is as dangerous to the lives of black people as it is irresponsible and dehumanizing. Decades of tireless work has gone into getting black people more comfortable with getting treatments for mental health and radicalizing the field to be more adept at handling racial trauma and this movie aims to undo all of that work for the gimmick of a scare.

Tate Taylor, also the director of the James Brown biopic Get on Up, is highly attracted to telling black stories despite the fact that his a white man who lives in a former slave plantation. The comparisons of MA to Get Out have already begun despite the fact that the two movies have nothing in common except black leads. Get Out was a black director putting on screen something that had never been done before, the encapsulation of black anxiety in white spaces. MA depicts something that black people have known (even at the cost of our lives) for decades, white people are afraid of us. There is something about us that makes them nervous and when they see us they have every right to call the cops on us, even over mundane, innocuous things.

My guess is this film will probably have a final fight scene between Spencers’ Ma and Maggie, our traditional white final girl and might have Ma take a hard hit, pretend to be dead and then disappear in the final shot, on to wreak havoc on some other whites, so that his production company [named in honor of a Mississippi slave plantation where he calls home] can start work on MA 2: Oh No You Didn’t!.

Heres hoping I’m wrong and the movie ends with a black woman entering into therapy, happy, living her life away from toxicity, eating Halo Top ice cream on the veranda of the home she built on top of the condemned remains of an antebellum slave manor.

With the success of movies like Get Out and US, movies made by black voices to express black experiences, there will be many attempts at copies. People will try to replicate the success of the films with the parts they think made it so successful, a black lead, underlying racial tension, and a black person enacting violence as the aggressor. This misrepresents what makes Jordan Peele movies so unique, there is a black lead in his projects because the story could not exist without it, blackness is not an accessory to be fitted with the character, it is a part of the character and shapes their experiences and moves the plot along. A movie like MA is closer to a movie like Greta, in which a scary lady attacks a young, defenseless white girl. Placing a black lead in the film brings all the baggage of history and society that black people have to carry everywhere we go. It’s not enough to use our bodies as props for your film, if you want us, you have to understand who we are and take responsibility for our depiction. Tate Taylor has demonstrated a massive lack of knowledge of what it means to have a movie with a black lead in it. One has to wonder, what is the connection between a man who sleeps comfortably in a home where blacks were forced to work, beaten and held hostage has now moved on to make a film where violence is invited upon a black body of his choosing.

The most terrifying aspect of this movie is how the past replays itself in new and creative ways.

Originally Posted Here