Delighted -- and disturbed -- by Octavia Spencer's rage in 'Ma'

What, exactly did she want us to hear? The film was marketed as a potentially hilarious revenge fantasy about an older black woman who’s simply had enough. Enough of being mistreated and overlooked, run down and run over, and who snaps on a group of unruly white kids.

Delighted -- and disturbed -- by Octavia Spencer's rage in 'Ma'

What, exactly did she want us to hear? The film was marketed as a potentially hilarious revenge fantasy about an older black woman who’s simply had enough. Enough of being mistreated and overlooked, run down and run over, and who snaps on a group of unruly white kids.

The film unspools quite differently, largely in part because it doesn’t know what it wants to be: A study of PTSD, a “Falling Down” reboot, pure camp or torture porn? It manages to be a little of all, none very successfully. The filmmakers seem more invested in positioning the movie to be eaten up, regurgitated and upcycled on Twitter than in making a point about its protagonist, a lonely woman named Sue Ann (nicknamed Ma) who lives in a predominantly white town in Ohio, working at a dead-end job and at war with herself and the trauma of her past.

She is, as therapists say, having difficulty looking at the wound without becoming the wound. She is so far inside it that she uses it to rationalize her treatment of the people in her life, including the abuse of her daughter. Her deep depression, grief and sadness fester until they metastasize into an all-encompassing rage, albeit one that is problematically rendered.

There is a long history in popular culture of characters unraveling with gusto: Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”; John Wick, to some degree; Daenerys’ razing the entirety of Kings Landing, just because she could. The inner monologue of Nora, the narrator of Claire Messud’s novel “The Woman Upstairs,” fumes with anger at her own unrealized dreams, giving herself permission to lash out in unforgivable ways.

In my favorite Elena Ferrante novel “The Days of Abandonment,” a woman named Olga descends into madness after her husband leaves her for another woman. When Olga sees them together in the street, she lashes out, verbally and physically. Olga tries to seduce her neighbor and accidentally kills her dog. Authors like Nell Zink, Ottessa Moshfegh and Paula Bomer also love to write women who take pleasure in being pathological disasters.

Consuming narratives of unbridled messiness and fury delight me (I’m a Scorpio). Although of course I know that these behaviors are not normative or acceptable, it’s darkly fun to indulge in the fantasy of them, of giving into the base human impulses that exist beyond societal expectations. It’s reassuring to know that having a limit is human, and to see how skilled directors and writers embody what happens when we go over it. Rage is a regular part of my life, and since I rarely get to fully express it, I enjoy seeing it explode onscreen. It’s as cathartic as any means of processing anger, grief, fear, sadness.

Have we ever seen a black protagonist snap as hard as Ma? Each of the characters described above are white. We’ve certainly seen Elektra Abundance, Cookie Lyon and Olivia Pope char their enemies with a single glance, but murder? Black women onscreen are rarely anything but the impeccably dressed and infallible “superheroes” that noted black feminist writer Michelle Wallace presciently understood, even back in the 1970s. They are resilient; they rely on humor and “sass” to endure life’s hardships. Anger may be present, but we rarely see it depicted as more than cutting remarks, or a tired bitterness. I kept waiting for Red, the tethered doppelgänger played by Lupita Nyong’o in Jordan’s Peele’s “Us” to have a justifiably explosive meltdown from decades of deceit and pent-up repression, but she never did. Her exterior remained calm, calculating, collected.

Messy, sexual, traumatized, abusive black women like the one Spencer plays are not easily digested. A friend recently told me that her girlfriend’s family was so disturbed by the film that they refused to discuss it after, or relay any details whatsoever.

There’s a scene in “Ma” where Spencer sits in a nail salon, thumbing through her social feeds to kill time. She sees a video of Haley, one of the local kids she’s befriended, telling everyone to ignore Ma. That she’s lame. A loser. Ma screeches at her smartphone, irritating the older white woman next to her, who then becomes the target of Ma’s rage. Ma scrambles into her car and drives around until she sees a former high school classmate and actually runs her over. Later, we find out that this classmate had a particularly devious hand in Ma’s trauma, but in that moment, we’re just bearing witness to what it might feel like to follow a spiral to its darkest end. And seeing a black women enact it is unbelievably satisfying — and unheard-of, onscreen.

“Ma” was originally written for a white character who has a mental break. Tate Taylor, Spencer’s longtime friend and collaborator (they also worked together on “The Help”) wanted to adapt it for her. When he told her that “you actually do all the killing,” she said she replied, “OK, I’m interested.” What if the witch from Hansel and Gretel had been black? Freddy Krueger? Hannibal Lecter? In “Ma,” we get a Katamari-blend of all three, skewered through the lens of a woman who is sick and tired of people assuming she’s, well, the help.

Spencer is a creative who seems to be brimming with unfulfilled desires and potential. She spent the better part of two decades playing the types of black characters that white audiences find endearing and reminiscent of “better” times and that tend to make black audiences squirm.

This year, Spencer announced the formation of an entertainment company named Orit — after the “nickname” a former boss gave her because she couldn’t be bothered to learn Spencer’s actual first name, a pointed reference to the disempowerment she endured to get to this milestone in her career. In truth, we don’t know much about what stories she wants to tell — because she’s only getting started. She has thrown her influence behind several films, serving as an executive producer on, admirably, “Fruitvale Station,” and less admirably, “Green Book.”

But what we do know is that Spencer is not afraid to play around with complex themes of black isolation, motherhood, white entitlement, pain — physical and metaphysical — and humor. I laughed more the second time that I watched “Ma.” In a recent interview with Vulture, Lee Daniels said that when he watches his 2009 drama “Precious,” he laughs. “It’s so painful that you have to laugh,” he said. “Because if you sit with it, you’ll be in a mental institution.”

Spencer’s deftness with such unformed ideas is still a marvel to watch. Ma works at a veterinarian clinic, and the scenes of her at work make for the film’s funniest, like when she’s trying to wrangle a goat into a trailer and half-kicks and curses at it. Or when she starts to harass the teenagers using their own weapon of choice: social media.

These lighter moments don’t offset the truly disturbing parts of the film — including the abuse of her daughter. During the final act, Ma paints the lone black teenager’s face with white paint and sings to him, “Sorry, there’s only room for one of us.” I kept thinking about that character, Darrell, in the aftermath, when all the teenagers are crying and comforting themselves. Darrell stood to the side, alone, head hung in contemplation. No one hugged him, or wiped his face, or unwound the dog collar still around his neck. What happens to him and his pain?

There’s a clip on YouTube of Minny, Spencer’s Oscar-winning role in “The Help.” The clip was recorded stealthily — and illegally — while the film was still playing in theaters, but the important part is you can hear the reaction of the audience as Minny exacts revenge on her white employers. Fed up with their mistreatment of her, she tells them there’s human excrement in the pie they are currently eating. You can barely hear the dialogue over the claps and cackles as Minny wields power in the only way someone in her position could back then.

Spencer’s history in Hollywood is uncomfortable. What does it mean that even her departure from those genres also makes us uncomfortable? Maybe the discomfort is the story we should be paying attention to.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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