Ma, Revenge of the Mammy: A Black Female Perspective

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.


The Master’s House: The Intruder, A Review

The Intruder marks the latest edition in the predictable suspense genre perpetuated by attractive non-white actors. The film casts Meagan Good as Annie, a leading yet color blind role alongside a similarly colorless Michael Ealy who plays her husband, Scott. They play a young couple seeking to start a new chapter of their lives and marriage outside of the city. However, their purchase, a large home in Napa, comes at a cost. Charlie, a middle-aged white man, embodies this cost. Charlie, the home’s original owner, appears to give Scott and Annie a reasonable price for the large property; however, Charlie never actually leaves the house he sells to the young couple.
The film proves an allegory for racialized space. In Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools,” Lorde employs a house to symbolize the systemic paradigm white hegemony constructs, and uses tools to represent its various manifestations. The house in The Intruder represents a colonized white space that encompasses both white sin and white status. Charlie’s house symbolizes his status but also houses his sin. The sin, viewers learn, is that Charlie murdered his wife, a white woman, who sought to take his house. This failed acquisition on the part of Charlie’s late wife places white male anxiety as a catalyst for thwarting a feminist agenda. Charlie’s late wife attempted to very upward mobility Scott and Annie seek in attempting to purchase Charlie’s home, yet Scott and Annie’s move into Charlie’s home actualizes their movement into a white hegemonic core. This transition disrupts the upward mobility narrative that many falsely believe carries the systemically disenfranchised away from their oppression. Instead, the film depicts blacks who adopt this ideology as becoming further immersed into systemic oppression through what appears to be an upward climb. For this reason, the film illustrates a unique intrusion represents in both praxis and theory.

Though Scott and Annie do illustrate a unique form of invasion, the Intruder in the movie is not Charlie. Scott and Annie, colorblind roles brought to life by black actors, represent intrusion, not inclusion. Inclusion would reflect tasks that take into account the black experience. Intrusion marks imposing a white hegemonic agenda onto a black body at the expense of black personhood. Hollywood, like the many institutions that compose the Americas, have implemented initiatives that only appear to revise its overtly racist origins. Now, as seen in films like When the Bough Breaks, and Collateral Beauty, black actors more avidly appear in starring roles, but not as black people. Specifically, Hollywood employs physical blackness as a means to superficially encompass diversity in image without bothering to include variety in script or characterization. This act functions stealthily for the viewer just seeking to see his or her reflection and encompasses a violent invisibility that foreshadows a colorless world that creatively implements a racist methodology.
Another important dynamic that the film illustrates, is the white male pursuing a second chance or second life through the black male. Charlie, who murders his estranged wife, loses his children and his business as well. He seeks to rebuild his life through Scott, a black man who possesses a promise that he no longer does. Scott, in this instance, represents the black space white realtors seek to perpetuate white hegemonic power. These investments prove a means for white franchisement by abudting black spaces to rebuild their lives. It is also worth mentioning that Charlie wishes to replace Scott in a life he has built with Annie, a black woman. Annie, initially unaware of just how much anger and danger lies beneath Charlie’s seemingly innocuous behavior, encompasses a means for Charlie to reappropriate his white masculinity in the contemporary climate. Here, I reference the number of white men who exude their white hegemonic placement in interracial relationships with black women. These relationships convey a dynamic identical to Hollywood’s relationship with black actors. Notably, in these interracial relationships, the white male appears to appreciate black people and culture, just as Hollywood appears to appreciate blackness through what seems to be inclusion. However, these white men, like Hollywood, intrude on the black narrative by using the black body, or blackness in general, to appropriate a common white agenda manifested in individual solicitation of black bodies.
It is the coercion to ignore what makes us different that makes this solicitation successful. In her essay “The Master’s Tools,” Audre Lorde confronts the white hegemonic pedagogy that instructs the oppressed to adopt this dangerous ideology. She writes: “we have been taught either to ignore our differences or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change” (Lorde 112). Though Lorde speaks specifically of women in her prose, this statement proves true for the black collective. Blacks are too often subject to the idea that we must ignore our blackness to enable progress. This statement ignores that the western world literally burned blackness as a pejorative contruct into our flesh. To ignore our blackness because it is inconvenient to our oppressors does not change anything, it merely neuters our collective power. Lorde goes on to bluntly state that “ the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about positive change” (Lorde 112). The Intruder illustrates this very dynamic, as Ealy and Good personify the master’s tools as black actors in a colorblind roles, and characters Scott and Annie illustrate this dynamic as black people seeking upward mobility by acquiring a white man’s space in a white country. The coupled performance Scott and Annie/Ealy and Good provide both on and off the big screen appear to beat the master at his own game. However, though Ealy and Good appear to hone leading roles in a widely distributed film, and Scott and Annie kill Charlie, they commonly embody the master’s tools whose actions paint the master’s house white. Scott and Annie, like the black actors who portray them, remain lost in a labyrinth of white supremacy who culminate the master’s victory in believing they attained a freedom they never truly attempted.