Ma, presents a nuanced mammy figure in leading lady Octavia Spencer, who uses complacency as a means of entry to implement her retaliation. Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer) is a psychologically scarred girl inside a middle-aged woman’s body. Sue Ann, in love with a popular white male, believes she is to perform oral sex on him but services a random white male as part of a cruel joke to which her entire cohort is privy. The cruel joke, though an element of Ellington’s past, makes its way into the present through flashbacks seemingly invoked in the company of her adversaries’ children. Ellington, named Ma by the sole black boy in a class of middle-class white children, comes into contact with her adversaries’s children in their plight to access alcohol. Ma does the underage drinkers one better than their initial request and not only supplies them their requested poison but provides a setting for their indulgence. The space becomes a hyper site for Ma to reenact her revenge.
Viewers eventually learn that there is someone absent from Ma’s parties, her daughter Jeannie. Ma convinces her daughter that she is too ill for school, forcing Jeannie’s detachment from her white peers. Ma drugs her daughter to maintain a control that ultimately detaches Jeannie from Ma as well. It becomes clear throughout the movie, that while Ma is not overtly kind to her daughter, her actions do reflect the love that she professes every time she leaves her child. Ma loves Jeannie but her commitment to protecting her daughter from the crippling horror that haunts her into a vengeful stupor complicates her motherly love. Ma, of course, creates trauma in trying to circumvent its wrath, illustrating the fickle space black victims of trauma experience in reactionary attempts to self-medicate.
Ma appears to heal past wounds in what seems the opportunity to live a second youth through her newfound friends, but it is not long before the apples begin to resemble the tree from which they fall. Specifically, Ma maintains her position as the sole black female amongst an all-white group that sees her as a means to an end. This abusive dynamic appears countless times throughout the film. Ma works as a veterinary assistant, her boss is unkind and unprofessional, using expletives and a dismissive disposition to address Ma. Ma takes her frustrations out on animals—mirroring abuse as cyclical, but also illustrates that the dehumanized are often place in similar proximity to the non-human oppressed. The film, like countless other films like Fruitvale Station (2013) and even The Intruder (2019), juxtapose black people to animals to illustrate a systemized dehumanization. Unlike Fruitvale Station that delineates a gruesome comparison between pit bulls and black men, and The Intruder which uses white male brutality toward a helpless deer as foreshadow for the doom that awaits a young black couple, in Ma, whites treat their dogs with more decency and regard that they do black people. Ma’s classmates visit the clinic, which institutionally requires Ma to show their pets more respect and care than they have ever taught her. It is also worth mentioning that Ma is called a bitch twice in the film by two white women. Though the term bitch, which means “female dog” is said to encompass a general insult to women, the film’s use illustrates the black female as embodying this pejorative term. Mainly, though Ma cares for female dogs, she is the bitch.
Though a victim to white cruelty, Ma uses her increased proximity to the next generation of white youth to negotiate her victim status. However, the reasoning behind her actions complicates her alignment with the term “villain.” Ma, who exists as both entertainment and experimentation for her peers, illustrates that to be black is to be inhuman, yet her characterization delineates blacks as more human than their oppressors. Specifically, Ma’s rage and retaliation are highly reactionary. She is traumatized, and there is a reason for her behavior; however, her white classmates lack proper motivation for their callous actions. Though Ma’s past assailant uses the excuse that he was a child when he mistreated her, Ma reminds him and the audience that she was a child too.
Ma’s statement not only brings her seized agency to the forefront of the film but illustrates that white childhood imbues an innocence that black childhood does not. Just as serial killers often torture animals to precede their attacks on humans—the white children use the black female body as a hyper site for dehumanizing black people to the status as “other,” an ideology they will pass on to their children. While whites pass their spoiled seeds onto their children, Ma does not harm Jeannie in the same way. In fact, it is Jeannie who enables the white youth to escape the literal burning house set ablaze by Ma’s wrath. Jeannie does not socially reproduce her mother’s sins because Ma is not evil, she is hurt, yet the opposite reigns true for her adversaries.
The literal burning house that concludes the film aligns with the burning house Dr. King aligned with integration in a conversation with Harry Belafonte shortly before his murder. Ma, the token black female, illustrates the issue with black children attending predominately white schools. Ma tells Darnell, who is the sole black person in a white social circle, “there can only be one of us,” as she paints his face white. As haunting as this depiction was, the opposite is true. Black presence at a predominately white space enables white people to possess a whiteness only illuminated in the presence of other. Just as a master isn’t a master without a slave, whites cannot be white without a black to “niggerize.” It is essential to note that the opposite is true for those of African descent; black people do not need white people to culminate their identity. To paraphrase theorist Frantz Fanon from his book The Wretched of the Earth, whites must dissipate a black national consciousness to create and stabilize white supremacy. To encounter a white person in an environment where they are the majority such as America or one of its smaller institutions that mirror its imperialistic intent, is to ensure the black individual does not develop and cannot nurture a national consciousness. White dependency on the oppressed other depicts power as starting at the bottom. The film mirrors this dynamic through flames that begin in the base of the home and work their way up. Ma’s climb from the bottom to the top of her home with the flames following her, personifies the heat that accompanies those charred black by white supremacy as rising, not evaporating, with upward mobility.
The burning house, in which Ma willingly remains, mirrors the prison or capital punishment that awaits her on the other side of the flames; specifically, Ma’s fate does not vary whether she literally or figuratively burns in a white supremacist institution. The burning house illustrates what the institution strives to make of blacks who take their justice— a nigger. The black person, therefore, can never integrate into white society as anything other than another, personified through the term and ideology encompassed by the word “nigger.” Ma, however, seeks to negotiate what for so long functioned as the inevitable, a negotiation that falls flat due to her white conception. Specifically, the film’s conclusion actualizes King, and every black freedom fighter’s worst nightmare– a niggerized black who, with her head affectionately placed on the source of her suffering, seizes a niggerized version of freedom in which the fate the oppressed envisioned for their oppressors, becomes their own.