On Mammy and Ma: Why Tate Taylor’s “Ma” is really “The Help, Part 2” and Why You Should Avoid It
by Max S. Gordon
When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked,
A song that’s spoke,
I laugh so hard I almost choke,
When I think about myself.
Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me, Girl
I say, Yes Ma’am for working sake
I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.
So, I laugh until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laughed so hard I nearly died,
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
I laugh until I start to crying,
When I think about my folks.
“When I Think About Myself” — Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
“Own all of your memories and experiences, even if they were traumatic. Own It! The world is broken because we’re broken. There are too many of us who want to forget.”
Viola Davis, Barnard College Commencement Keynote Address, May 20, 2019
(This essay contains the entire plot of Ma.)
When the credits rolled for Tate Taylor’s Ma, I found myself sitting in the same stunned silence with which I received his earlier film, The Help. As I began to argue on the subway home as to why I found Ma (which one assumed from the trailer would be one hundred and eighty degrees away from that movie) to be as problematic as The Help but for different reasons, my husband put it succinctly: “Well, I guess Minny the maid is serving shit pies again — only this time it’s the audience that’s eating them.”
As someone who survived The Help (you didn’t just watch The Help in 2011, you either loved it or survived it), I argued in an earlier piece that I found more truth about black life in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, released at the same time, than in Tate Taylor’s film. I went into Ma believing that the film was Taylor’s — and to a lesser extent actress Octavia Spencer’s — apology for The Help. Viola Davis, the star of the film, had already atoned. In 2018 she told Vanity Fair that she had regrets about having made The Help and acknowledged that, while she would always love the actresses she worked with and the director, the movie about racism in the Jim Crow south hadn’t achieved what she’d hoped, preferring to tell the white employers stories over the experience of the black maids.
It was a rare admission in the film industry, and especially for an actor of color and a female actor, who might still fear, despite her great achievements and prestige, retaliation from studios for speaking out. (Davis may prove in the end to be braver than her mentor and idol, Meryl Streep. We are still waiting for Streep’s apology for The Iron Lady.)
In 2011 when the film premiered and later in the 2018 interview, Davis said that she knew the black women characterized in the film, that they represented domestics in her own family. She went on to acknowledge that she modeled her character, Aibileen, very loosely on the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. I understand why Davis was haunted by The Help. Anyone who draws from Fannie Lou Hamer for inspiration must have appreciated how audience members, both black and white, would feel deeply betrayed by Taylor’s film and the myths it perpetuated. Those who went to The Help for a movie about resistance, got instead a black female character who, despite living in a racist South that had destroyed her own child, still found the patience to shower little white children with words of inspiration: “You’s kind, you’s smart, you’s important.”
The shadow question that lurks under the surface of all Hollywood films in which a black character sublimates his or her desire for freedom in order to transform, heal or serve a white person — and specifically The Help — is this: Wasn’t there ever a point when Aibileen’s white charge asked, “Aibileen, am I kind, am I smart, am I important?” to which she longed to reply, “How the hell should I know, you self-centered little asshole? Leave me alone. I’m trying to hang this laundry and I’ve got a splitting headache.”
Wasn’t there ever even one time when Morgan Freeman’s Hoke didn’t feel like driving Miss Daisy, but dreamed of pulling to the side of the road and clocking her with a tire-iron instead? Did Bill “Bojangles” Robinson always love his dancing duets with Shirley Temple or did he sometimes dream of sticking his foot out and watching her tumble down the stairs, tap shoes, bouncy curls, and all? Did Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in Gone With the Wind ache to return Scarlett O’Hara’s slap with a sharp left hook of her own?
No matter how much black pain must be ignored to perpetuate these fantasies of American interracial harmony, Hollywood just keeps cranking them out, often faster than we can watch them. I suppose I’ll see Green Book eventually, but months later after the release of that film, I was appalled by the poster for the Kevin Hart/Bryan Cranston vehicle, The Upside. Hart, it appears, plays an ex-con caretaker to a curmudgeonly white man who, I imagine, after abusing him roundly, turns out to have a heart of gold. Hart stands grinning behind Cranston’s wheelchair, thrilled, one assumes, at the chance to empty a raging white man’s bedpans for his own moral improvement. I was seriously hoping that this chair was perilously close to the edge of a very steep cliff, and that Hart would lose control and they would both tumble to untimely deaths.
Again the question arises: Doesn’t Hollywood’s recurrent creation, Mammy — both in her male and female incarnations — ever dream of killing the white children she cares for? The answer to this question was supposed to be Tate Taylor’s Ma.
After being electrified by the trailer months ago, the film I anticipated would introduce us to an unapologetic black female serial killer. I was fascinated how Taylor, screenwriter Scotty Landes, Spencer, and their team were going to get away with it: “mammy” killing the white children she is historically meant to protect. It’s not that I wanted to see white people suffer, exactly, but I was intrigued, intoxicated by the idea of delving into the mind of a black female sociopath with a strong actress in the role. Usually black women, at least on screen, aren’t allowed to reveal the kind of narcissism that sociopathology requires; they are rarely allowed to be that selfish, that greedy, that self-possessed.
I also appreciated reading that Ma was written for a white actress, which, on some level, frees the character Sue Ann from the racial tropes that usually saddle down black characters when conceived by white screenwriters. (It is the stuff of legend that Diahann Carroll when she joined the cast of Dynasty in the Eighties asked the writers to write her character Dominique Deveraux as if she were a white man.) Sue Ann is an equal-opportunity screwed-up character, but the fact that she is black, and her peers are white, adds a racial dimension to the film that cannot be ignored.
From the trailer, I could see the filmmakers were clearly having subversive fun with the archetype of mammy. One of Ma’s taglines ironically reads, “Ma Will Take Care of You.” Instead of doing the ironing, Ma irons the six-pack of one of the white boys she seduces. Instead of tending to the family sewing, Ma takes out a needle and sews a sassy white girl’s mouth shut. Watching the trailer and laughing, I knew that Ma’s violence, with the right mixture of comedy, could be outrageous, grotesque and fun — and I was here for every minute of it. Then I learned that Tate Taylor of The Help was Ma’s director and I paused.
Unlike Viola Davis, Taylor and Spencer never apologized for The Help. They clearly felt no need to, and why should they? The Help grossed over two hundred million dollars worldwide, and Spencer won an Academy award for her portrayal of Minny. At one point in the film, Spencer stares at the audience and says: “Minny don’t burn no chicken!”. In my audience, this black woman’s allegiance to fried chicken received cheers. Spencer’s transgressions may have seemed less offensive than Davis’ because she doesn’t appear to be embarrassed in the movie. And by Hollywood standards, starring in The Help was a shrewd move by Spencer, leading to Hollywood’s greatest accolade and the power to develop her own projects; Spencer is a co-producer on Ma.
It is always nice to see a black actor win an Oscar, but I found Spencer’s achievement bittersweet. If you didn’t catch the earlier reference from The Help, based on the eponymous book by Katherine Stockett, Minny the maid, whose employer refuses her the right to use the bathroom, plots her revenge and serves the racist woman a chocolate pie mixed with her own feces. I’ve often weighed this plot point in my head but when I try to catalogue it next to the many forms that black resistance took in response to Southern racism throughout the Civil Rights Movement, it just seems so bizarre.
Now, I have nothing against revenge, feces or chocolate pie, but I do have something against historical movies that refuse to deal with consequences. Minny serves a white woman a dessert made from her own shit, and she, and everyone else involved in Taylor and Stockett’s conception of the Jim Crow South, still gets a pastel-colored happy ending: Minny and Aibileen drop the white protagonist, Skeeter, at the train station and wish her well while encouraging her dream to become a writer. “You listen to me, Miss Skeeter. I’m on take care a Aibileen and she gone take care a me”, and, “them bad things gone happen whether you here or not…so don’t walk your white butt to New York, run it!”
When one considers the history of Emmett Till, a young black boy who was murdered and mutilated by the Klan for allegedly “disrespecting” a white woman, it is inconceivable that Minny would get away with a crime like this in Till’s native Chicago, much less in Mississippi where The Help takes place and where he was eventually killed. My point is this: there were Minnys catching hell all over the country, some who paid the ultimate price for doing a hell of a lot less than serving shit pies to white folks. The Help dishonored them when it insisted on perpetuating myths rather than realism. I didn’t have the same expectations for Ma as I did for The Help, my expectations were looser, freer. But like The Help, Ma fails on all counts: both as both a political testament to black rage and as a conventional horror film.
I love Ma’s premise: Sue Ann Ellington works as a veterinarian’s assistant and appears to live alone. She can barely stand her job and hates her boss. Many of the people with whom she went to high school still live in the same town. Erica, who also grew up there, and played by Juliette Lewis, returns after her marriage fails, with her teenage daughter Maggie. Maggie is befriended by a group of kids who like to drink and who solicit Ma to buy them alcohol as they are all underage. Ma invites them to party in her basement, and eventually joins them. We later learn that Sue Ann was humiliated by her own peer group, she’s never gotten over it, and her plan is to exact revenge on her classmates’ children. I suspected something like this when I watched Ma’s trailer and I even wrote to Stephen King on Twitter; “Finally, someone has figured out the right way to remake Carrie.” I doubt King saw my tweet, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In Brian DePalma’s film Carrie — and a comparison of the two films can and should be made — Carrie also deals with revenge after a cruel prank by her classmates. With the exception of one of the classmates who lives to tell, Carrie kills everyone at the prom. Heartbreak is part of this beautifully warped Cinderella story, and DePalma’s film, with Sissy Spacek’s performance at its center, has real pain, betrayal and consequences at its core.
Ma has a potentially lyrical subject and in the right hands it might have soared. Juliette Lewis projects the still youthful, but wounded presence of a woman whose best days may have been in high school and who now feels bewildered by her life. Her scenes with Spencer have a gritty texture and there is real pathos when she apologizes to Sue Ann for her crimes later in the film. But the movie is filmed blatantly and with indifference, like a TV movie on Lifetime. This isn’t surprising, the film was budgeted at five million dollars. You don’t have to be a producer in Hollywood to know that these days five million dollars is nothing; Madonna recently paid two million of her own money for a one-time hologram performance at the Billboard Music Awards. Even Tyler Perry, who knows his way around a low-budgeted film, spent twenty million on A Madea Family Funeral.
And Ma suffers for it. It’s B-movie ugly when it should have the gloss of an A-list Hollywood film like Misery and Fatal Attraction. This was a cynical and greedy decision all around, because the film is guaranteed to make that money back and much more during its opening weekend alone. (At the time of this writing, Ma has already quadrupled its investment.) Which means that no one gave a damn about really telling Ma’s story properly or creating a visually beautiful film.
There is not a single frame of film virtuosity, no grand music cues, sustained suspense, or a moment when you feel the exhilaration of a well-paced horror movie; there are no scenes that really pay off. The film even refuses to play by the most basic horror movie rules; everyone knows the cheaper the film, the more people you have to kill. Ma is a slasher film in which no one is slashed. Except for some brief nudity and a few scenes with menace, the film feels like an “after-school” special on the dangers of playground predators and teenage drinking. Ma is definitely weird, and a little too clingy, but ultimately she’s fun. She must be, otherwise the kids wouldn’t keep coming back to party with her. In Taylor’s conception, even a heartbroken black female serial killer still gives white kids pizza rolls, vodka shots and a break from high-school stress. Ma is evil, but damn, she knows how to throw a good party.
The kids that Ma invites to her house are functionally believable; I didn’t find them annoying as actors, but they aren’t really characters. Maggie, “the new girl”, is a standout. The teenagers are depicted in the traditional way that horror movies usually telegraph to the audience that these people are expendable and will be killed — add a few years to these kids’ ages, make them camp counselors, and horror-film audiences would expect at least one of them to be chopped to bits fifteen minutes into the story.
Taylor choses instead to hover over their sweetness, their puppy love, and allows them to disrespect an older black woman over and over again, serial killer or not. We watch Ma humiliated and we tolerate it all because we know from the trailer that in the big finish these bodies will be smashed; someone is going to pay. When we realize ten minutes before the end that Taylor has no intention of harming them, we’re furious. Even an old white woman in the beauty parlor calls Sue Ann a bitch and gets away with it; Sue Ann doesn’t wait for her in the parking lot or try and follow her home. Octavia Spencer isn’t allowed to have the fun that Kathleen Turner had in John Waters’ Serial Mom. (Turner beats someone to death with a public telephone for wearing white after Labor day and bludgeons her neighbor with a leg of lamb.)
It isn’t Halloween, but Tate Taylor is playing Trick or Treat. The trailer, we discover, was a tease, a stunt, and manages to reveal the entire movie while suggesting another movie that isn’t there. Ma’s not a “real” serial killer at all, she’s just a slightly demented babysitter, or a demonic teacher who runs detention. When the school bell rings, everyone in the movie, and in the audience, is free to go home and to take their mythology with them.
Ma turns out to be everything it promised not to be; a movie about an aberrant, disturbed black woman, a loser, who throws herself against the white world and barely leaves a dent. Ma may leave a few dead bodies in her wake, but it is the film itself that really gets away with murder.
I have to hand it to him; screenwriter Scott Landes had something clever up his sleeve, one genuine surprise. I figured it would be nearly impossible after the trailer I saw to manipulate Octavia Spencer into a mammy figure, and that the character of Sue Ann as a serial killer was mammy-proof. And on some level I was right. What I hadn’t anticipated was the creation of a daughter for Sue Ann: mini-mammy, or teen-mammy.
Ma’s daughter, Genie, also a victim of her mother’s cruelty (Landes manages to rip off plot points from Mommie Dearest and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane without maintaining the emotional violence that distinguished those films), resents her mother. Ma keeps Genie a prisoner in the house, occasionally allowing her to go to school. When the final confrontation comes, Genie sides with her peers. The white children aren’t required to find ingenious ways to save themselves from Ma, they aren’t trapped in closets, or basements, or attics, or locked cars, all of which would generate real movie suspense. The audience is deprived of the cat-and-mouse games that make the genre pleasurable, there is no The Texas Chainsaw Massacre chase sequence here; no Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers determination to destroy everything in their paths. Ma the movie even eschews the compulsory false ending where we think Ma is killed and she comes back for one last act of vengeance. As clichéd and overdone as the false denouément is, we still look forward to it — one final scare.
Just when it seems that the film is about to take off, Teen-Mammy comes to the rescue. Taylor’s idea of a climax is pitting one black woman against another: mother vs. daughter. Genie, aptly named, pops out of a bottle or out of her wheelchair — the writers can’t decide whether she actually requires one or not — and risks her own life to rescue her classmates.
Ma kills herself in the end, as Carrie White does, allowing herself to die in a burning, disintegrating house, curled up next to the boy she was in love with in high school — and has just killed. We grieved Carrie at the end of her film, but by the end of Ma all we feel is indifference and repulsion. And we aren’t sure of Genie’s fate; one assumes she will be raised by State or by wolves, as the kids at school and their parents pretty much just met her. (Genie is a movie first; she helps kill her mother in order to get more friends on Facebook.) Taylor can’t conceive of a black daughter who, despite resenting her mother, might still howl in pain as her mother dies in the fire; she is just relieved to be free of the monster who has kept her imprisoned.
In Taylor’s and Landes’ ending, Ma is stabbed in the back by the new girl, Maggie, who tells her, in response to Ma’s earlier criticism of her: “I’m not weak”. Maggie is the hero, but I wanted Ma — I know it is wrong — to have her big moment of evil glory. I wanted her to escape, not to burn up in the house, so that we might look forward to Ma 2. In my ending, we’d assume that Sue Ann Ellington had burned up in the fire, but Ma, who really knows her way around Facebook and Instagram, would send a text to one of the kids a few months later with only one sentence, her signature line: “Don’t Make Me Drink Alone”. Ma would Facetime the group and we would see her drinking tequila somewhere in Mexico or Cancún with a party of rich white kids during spring break. A cunning Hannibal Lector smile on her face, she would return to the dance floor while the kids all chanted, “MA!” and she winked at the audience. That’s the movie I came to see.
Noon by the clock
And so still by the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I’ll say, “Right now.
Then they’ll pile up the bodies
And I’ll say,
“That’ll learn ya!”
— Pirate Jenny, The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill, as sung by Nina Simone
I’ll admit, I hesitated at first to write about Ma. It is so badly written and directed, and so cheaply made, that in any other context it would, and should, evaporate without a trace. I feared that whatever I wrote might end up less an indictment of the film and more evidence of my bad judgement for trusting it. But I’m writing to you, reader, because I need to talk about the film and I don’t want to risk the impatience of cynical friends who warned me against it; these are the same people who rolled their eyes when I expressed genuine dismay at Trump’s getting elected, or when I exclaimed in surprise to discover that Jussie Smollett lied.
In some ways, I am less interested in what Ma turned out to be — a dramatic failure — than why I was so excited about it, why I needed Ma so badly right now, and what that says about what is happening in the world, about my own feelings of powerlessness and anger as a black gay man. I went to Ma for catharsis.
What Ma required to work emotionally as a film was an incident of unequivocal horror to justify Sue Ann’s rage. (Ma may be a psychopath, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a point.) There can be no question that what happens to Sue Ann in high school is an act of cruelty — her classmates trick her into giving a blowjob in the dark to the wrong guy, a nerd instead of the boy she is in love with. They then gather outside the janitor’s closet to laugh and ensure her complete humiliation. The scene is rushed in the film; we have no sense of its impact. We never see Sue Ann’s family or what happens when she goes home.
More convincing would be Sue Ann’s being raped and an unwanted pregnancy. We would then discover the reason for her pathological shame about the daughter whom she hides upstairs. We would want to know the impact on Sue Ann of having had a baby that she didn’t plan, and how this interrupted her life. Did she have to leave school, was she forced to conceive by religious parents?
The theme of a teenager forced to carry a pregnancy to term is very relevant at this time. Taylor and Landes, as screenwriters, cop out and betray the film’s core by avoiding a penetrative assault. They should have known — and if they didn’t Octavia should have told them — the minute they introduced Ma’s daughter and sexual violation by a white mob, they had a movie about slavery on their hands and an archetypal source for Ma’s rage. (What happens in the janitor’s closet just doesn’t resonate the same way: the American slave trade wasn’t defined by blow jobs.)
If Genie isn’t the child from a rape, then why does her mother keep her locked up and despise her? What is she doing upstairs? The movie is both cowardly and confused. Ma is allowed to kill white people, but she kills the wrong ones; a nosy cop gets shot without even entering the house, a white woman who was one of Ma’s high-school offenders gets run over, but Ma kills her while the woman is jogging; we don’t even see their eyes meet or the thrill of Ma’s retribution. Ma kills her veterinarian boss, a nasty, one-dimensional character played by Allison Janney in a blonde wig, but we don’t see this killing either; one minute she’s shouting at Ma, the next minute she’s bleeding to death inside a dog’s crate. (This death’s omission is the most unforgiveable in the film. You really must despise your audience to deprive them of a scene in which a black woman gets to kill her racist boss.) The only people Ma doesn’t try to kill are the teenagers who degrade her.
Watching Ma, I recalled a scene from Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: a young Maya is forced to watch a group of white children humiliate her grandmother in their yard in Stamps, Arkansas. Annie Henderson stands in front of their house immobile while the white children strike various poses, imitating her posture to uproarious laughter. One of the girls does a handstand and reveals that she has no underwear on. Maya, who is about six or seven, continues to observe from inside the house, while “Momma” sings a gospel hymn and stands still until the persecution ends. The girls finally take their leave, shouting to her grandmother, “Bye Annie!” to which she says to each child in turn, “Bye Miz Helen, bye Miz Ruth, bye Miz Eloise.”
“I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never be able to hold it straight, and the .410, our sawed-off shotgun, which stayed loaded and was fired every New Year’s Eve night, was locked in the trunk…the tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.”
It was an early lesson in racial survival in the South and a child’s introduction to the reality that poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had written about decades earlier in his 1913 poem “We Wear The Masks”:
“We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”
Angelou would publicly recite “Masks” along with her own poems, “When I Think About Myself” and “A Poem For Old Black Men”, throughout her professional life.
This is all to say there is a precedent for the black rage in Ma. White supremacy is wreaking havoc in the country right now and things have seriously gotten out of hand. (Until Nancy Pelosi decides on impeachment proceedings, audiences have to settle for Ma.) And when the white kids in the film get nasty, the way during press briefings Sarah Huckabee Sanders would get nasty with April Ryan from CNN, the audience is on Ma’s side, or at least my audience was. Haley, the popular ring leader of the group, tells Ma that she “needs a man”, and when Ma surprises them after school, Haley snaps, “Don’t you have a job?” Later, it is this girl who gets her lips sewn shut.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having my own group of white people whose lips I’ve dreamt of sewing shut; lips that said everything to me from “Excuse me, do you work here?” to “Dude, I’m so into Big Black Cock.” Tate Taylor doesn’t seem to understand that part of the fun of a revenge scene is watching the reaction of the person on whom you are exacting revenge. He doesn’t even give us this pleasure. We never get to see this young woman wake up and try to speak through the sewn-up lips, no closed-mouth screams of terror. And definitely no lines from Ma like, “What was that about me needing a man?” or “What’s the matter, honey, my needle got your tongue?” The group are all knocked out cold by Ma’s ubiquitous hypodermic needle to the neck, so deeply unconscious they don’t even register what is happening to them.
Ma does attempt something racially provocative in the last ten minutes of the film when Sue Ann uses housepaint to whitewash the face of the only black boy in the group. She says something about “there is only room for one of us”, still angry about an earlier joke of his about black people being at the bottom of slave ships. Whatever Taylor is attempting here with race and slavery, it is too little, too late.
The week before Ma opened, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about women and anger, and black people and anger. We were discussing the possibilities of the film and what it meant for Mammy finally to get her revenge, her due. I originally suggested that the film was timely, a form, however distorted, of black “power”, but she suggested, astutely, that the film could be anohter reason to demonize black women, with the same “kill the bitch” venom that marred the endings of both Misery and Fatal Attraction.
In the end, Ma’s story is too vaguely rendered to incite rage or tell us anything about real trauma or anyone’s pain, black or otherwise. Octavia Spencer seems prepared to tell us something about resentment and racism and a black woman’s anger. I believed in Sue Ann Ellington as a character and at times I enjoyed Spencer’s performance. But a writer has to be aware of his or her own pain, his own racial journey and denial, before he can write about someone else’s and specifically a black woman’s. He has to see how her American pain is connected to his own. In Ma, it is Taylor and Landes who wear the masks.
Last year, I went to my high school reunion.
It was my thirtieth. I’d missed both the tenth and twentieth — in both years I had lost a parent: my mother and then my father ten years later. By my thirtieth reunion, I was finally able to go, for the obvious reason — I’d run out of parents.
It was strange being back in my hometown in Michigan; I’d only returned only once after my mother died in 1998. I drove by the house I grew up in and lingered outside long enough to take things in without being conspicuous. I felt an irrational annoyance at the “improvements” the new owners had added to the place, a porch swing here, a basketball hoop there, and whose idea was it to paint the house that hideous beige color?
Logically, I knew we didn’t live there anymore and it wasn’t mine to judge, but it was hard to tell my heart not to look for my father’s car in the driveway, or my mother to come out of the house and check the mail. I remembered the afternoons sitting on the porch reading and waiting for my mother to come home from work because I’d forgotten my house key. Again.
As part of the reunion weekend, we were offered a tour of the high school. From the outside the building was fairly recognizable, but inside, members of my class and I marveled at all the changes; athletes, in particular, gasped at remodeled facilities they’d never enjoyed, and we all admired technology and conveniences that simply weren’t available to us when we graduated in 1988.
Much had changed and had been remodeled except for one artifact that several us “discovered” with delight like archeologists on a dig; a long remaining beam that marked where the Seniors exclusively hung out in an area we called “The Commons”. There was now even a large café that served coffee and snacks, when in our day all we had was a hole in the wall that sold candy bars and looked like the commissary in a minimum-security prison. A few of my friends walked through the tour with their own children, some of them the same age as I remembered us in my high school memories. I later went to coffee with a friend and his wife, and marveled at their son and daughter; while I had gone to the mall during the day to find some shirts more comfortable in the heat, they had gone to a rally at the Capitol to protest against Trump’s immigration policies. I was especially impressed with my friend’s vociferously opinionated ten-year-old son, eager to share his views on human rights. I had flashbacks of his equally eager father in 10th grade, answering history questions on our Trivial Pursuit game nights.
The last night of the reunion was a slightly more formal dinner, with a presentation followed by mock awards. I was more interested in getting to the dance floor. I think there was voting or ballots involved for the awards, but whatever was happening near the check-in table, I’d dismissed them entirely. I did sense trouble, however, somewhere at the back of my neck, and just hoped the awards weren’t mean-spirited. I overheard there were innocuous categories like “Most Changed”, “Least Changed”, rather than “Still Drunk Thirty Years Later,” or “Most Likely to Fuck Up Their Kids.” During the presentation, in a section on artists in our class, I was grateful that my creative writing was acknowledged. Then the mock awards were handed out, amusing and all in good fun. It was almost over, and I was just beginning to wonder where the hotel bathroom was, when I heard my name called, and everyone in the room looked at me.
I had received the final award — Most Improved. I sat in my seat, unsure of what to do, and somewhat confused. I had only seconds to understand exactly what the award meant, and I was truly perplexed. Most Improved?
I knew that if I rushed up and accepted the award and said thank you very much, even in fun, I would be complicit in something false (not to mention that my mother would haunt my remaining days on Earth.). I could hear her cynical assessment from beyond the grave: these racist bastards, just like their parents. White people just can’t stand it when black children succeed. What the hell does Most Improved even mean? I knew my high school achievements and my sister’s had been a source of pride in my family, especially in a predominantly white community. My mother had kept the Book Bowl trophy I won in sixth grade for a reading competition, and a few of my writing awards. My deepest fear when I’d decided to attend my reunion was that I hadn’t been successful enough in my life and that somehow I’d failed on the promise I’d shown in high school. The award for “Biggest Disappointment” would have broken my heart to receive, but would have made more sense than “Most Improved”.
My other fear, as the applause continued and I still hadn’t moved from my seat, was that if I didn’t get up at all, I would seem like a bad sport and that that would be a comment on my ego. Too angry a response would sour the evening, but if I laughed and clapped too, I would be a sambo, a minstrel in my own eyes, complicit in a revisionist history about myself.
And there was still that thing lurking in the shadows, that emotion that rules Sue Ann’s pathology in Ma: the need to be accepted by my peers. I hadn’t been one of the “popular” rich kids of my high school class, I never went on Spring Break to Florida, or trips to the Caribbean, I never had my own car, or lived in the most expensive neighborhood. But I was well known, well liked, and visible. I had been on the Homecoming Court, elected to student government, a representative to our board of education, and I’d given one of the two speeches at our graduation, not as valedictorian, but based on the merit of my writing. I’d been in the school play, I’d volunteered. My deepest fear, and I’m sure I’m not alone, was that high school was where I’d peaked.
I knew I had to challenge this “Most Improved” shit but I wasn’t sure how. As I stood and looked at the room full of faces, I understood, in a very minor way, what Stephen King’s Carrie must have felt; I knew that the entire room hadn’t voted, probably most of them had no idea about the award and couldn’t have cared less, but I had no way of knowing because they were all laughing and clapping. The point of the prom scene in the movie is that Carrie could no longer differentiate between who was on her side and who meant to harm her. She couldn’t trust anymore — one of the legacies of trauma.
I finally thought, Don’t take it too seriously, just say thank you and sit down. But a part of me registered the “award” as an act of aggression from at least one person in my class that needed to be confronted. It was thirty years later, a million years later, and right or wrong, I felt that “they” had found a new way to hurt me: I was back in the old lunchroom vulnerability, holding a tray and looking for a place to sit on the first day of school, negotiating humiliation again.
There was no formal video from that night, but even though part of me dissociated in that moment, I know I got up, went to the front of the room, and expressed my bewilderment as I genuinely asked everyone what the award meant. I told my class, and this I do remember, that I recalled being — my exact words — pretty fucking fabulous in high school, and reminded them that I gave their graduation speech. I don’t drink anymore so I couldn’t blame my indignation on alcohol, nor did alcohol mitigate my pain. I felt raw. But having discussed my sexuality, my addictions, and race in my written work — some of which my classmates have read- I also felt strangely free.
Then with a smile, I calmly told them they could fuck off, and mentioned the racism I experienced while we were in high school. Then I gave them all the finger and sat down. Several people cheered my “fuck yous”, which then caused me to worry that I had made the whole thing an even bigger joke by smiling. But when I returned to the table, a white woman I trusted and had known since we were fourteen said, “I can’t believe you said all of that. Good for you.”
And let’s be clear, I was no angel in school. I was sometimes a manipulative child with chronic asthma which I often used to my academic advantage. When school got too stressful, I just stayed home, a habit developed in 5th grade, when I would “skip” school to watch Phil Donahue. (I was much more interested in crossdressing husbands and the wives who loved them than distorted and racist interpretations of American history.)
Basically, I was a typical, over-extended, homosexual boy, trying to create a dizzying array of activities and achievements, because I knew that that in the blur of “winning” no one would ask why I didn’t have a girlfriend or call me a faggot. It was a narrow escape: I began to come out the summer of my senior year. That was one of the reasons why, during the school tour in 2018, it was wonderful to learn that there was a gay/straight alliance at the school, an LGBTQ group. We hadn’t had anything like that.
When I got home to New York, and had a chance to reflect, I realized that the issue wasn’t about who was or wasn’t the “Most Improved”, it was about being seen for who I was. I considered my peers and knew that no matter what happened in our individual lives there were experiences we all shared regardless of race or sexual orientation; Senior Skip Day, the “Sev” runs to 7–11 for Big Gulps during study hour, boring assemblies, the teachers we all loved and hated.
But there were also the experiences we didn’t share; I will never name the kid who clapped me on the back after gym class and said, “You know, I like you, Max, you’re not scum like most black people are”; the “nigger” jokes told directly to my face as my classmates laughed around me; the teacher who assigned a test that contained the word “nigger” at least seven or eight times — I eventually lost count. Maybe it was three or four hundred, I can no longer remember, but even one nigger on the page was too many.
I remember looking up and waiting for another gaze to meet mine during the test that day, just one other face saying, “What the fuck is going on here?” or for someone to be embarrassed with me. If that face existed, I never saw it; I had to get back to my test or risk failing it. There were no protests about the word, no stampedes of parents at the school the next day. I knew that if I’d told my mother there would have been a stampede of one, but at the age of sixteen, you are too cool to call your Mom for help anymore. Only babies and sissies do that. I still remember the hot feeling on my face when I turned in my paper. The shame was all mine, not to be shared, not even by the teacher who inflicted it. So I didn’t talk about it, I swallowed the hurt. Where was that conversation at my 30th reunion?
I’ve written about some of these experiences before, and will probably write about them again, because, as Sue Ann says at one point in Ma — and this the film got right — some things you never get over. And it wasn’t all bad; there was also love. But I know I wasn’t the only person who was harmed in those years. I suspect a friend of mine in high school was raped, and I know for a fact that another friend was raped because she later told me. A black girl in junior high admitted to me that she had been raped by her step father and later by a boyfriend. At her old school, she told me, some of the boys called her ugly names. She dealt with both racism and sexual abuse at school.
Before Ma began in our theater, we were shown the trailer for the upcoming second part of Stephen King’s It. In the sequel to the first film, the character Beverly returns to the childhood home. The elderly woman lives there now generously invites her in for tea. We know from Part One that Beverly was being sexually abused by her father. The scene in the trailer, which could be titled “Daddy’s Little Girl”, revisits the trauma in Beverly’s past. (We know that Pennywise, the evil clown from the first film, is disguised as the woman.)
Part of the genius of It is the connection King makes between supernatural evil and the societal and familial evil so prevalent in our culture, the myriad ways that children are so often victimized by adults. It has been reported that the second half of It will also deal with a homophobic killing from the novel which was never written into the 1990’s TV version. Whether it will be handled responsibly remains to be seen. But the idea to include it, to attempt it, makes sense; when talking about evil these days, monsters under the bed, possessed dolls and flesh-eating zombies just aren’t as scary as the “heartbeat” bills being passed right now throughout the South or unprosecuted racist shootings by the police. Our children can handle the truth.
So here’s what’s also true: Tate Taylor is trafficking in black pain again but, as usual, he isn’t willing to go all the way; and Kathleen Stockett’s source material for The Help can’t be blamed this time. What is deeply regrettable is that if Ma had been braver it could have gone into the archetypal regions of the American psyche and encouraged the conversation we are having right now as a country — or that some of us are trying to have — about reparations for African Americans. Sue Ann is what happens in America when we refuse to talk about slavery.
I believe that contemporary audiences and young people who will be attracted to Tate Taylor’s film don’t need the soft-pedaled, cowardly, Disney-fied Ma. Ma matters because the depiction of black pain in popular culture matters, and how these depictions sensitize or desensitize us to black lives and the pain of the people around us. And there is so much pain in this cultural moment. Ma also matters because, as a result of Jordan Peele and other successful black filmmakers , we are in a fecund period of black representation. If the film makes money we can anticipate more characters like Sue Ann. But will they be truthful ones, able to express real anger, or will they follow the usual Hollywood pattern to placate and reassure?
It was my hope that perhaps, if Ma told the truth, a white audience might get the feeling, even if only for an hour and a half, for what it feels like to be on the other end of racial terror. Even though the circumstances are obviously contrived, I wanted those movie parents to cry over their dead children, as Trayvon Martin’s mother cried over her son. I wanted the emotional stakes to be higher, I wanted an audience to walk out of Ma shaking and haunted because no punches had been pulled. I wanted Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer to be brave. But now, as I write this, I have also to consider my earlier conversation with my friend: if Ma had been as ruthless as the trailer promised, if she had truly violated those white people and gotten away with it, if she hadn’t killed herself by the end of the film, would there be a backlash towards black women, would that have been too much freedom for audiences? I’m still waiting for Ma to be made.
It is extraordinary that, given the world we live in, Taylor’s film decides to play it so safe. When considering the tragic events in Parkland, Florida and a violence that isn’t compromised to ensure a bigger box office or to perpetuate a racist lie, the irony is that the teenagers in Ma were probably in more danger at their school than they were in Sue Ann’s basement.
What Taylor’s film is really about, whether the director knows it or not, is how our undigested, our unacknowledged past will always come back to haunt us. Sue Ann visits on the children of her peer group the pain she was never able to recover from; she has never gotten over her childhood wounds, she hasn’t grown up. And in this way, we as a country, as Americans, are collective Sue Anns. There are white people in this nation — and I am not amused or entertained by this at all — who live right now with variations of the hypervigilance black Americans experienced in the South and many parts of the North. As a culture, we must be circumspect everywhere; our lives depend upon it. Because of our unwillingness to face our violent past, our children are having drills at school in anticipation of the next mass shooting. Our campuses, our movie theaters, our churches are no longer safe.
Sandy Hook was the critical turning point, the test we all failed. Whiteness in America has reached a level where the Klan is now going after its own. Angry white men no longer differentiate whom they are raging at, and age means nothing. There are no places to worship safely, no boundaries, no sanctuaries. These shootings, defined by whiteness and maleness and frustration, make niggers of us all. The only answer disturbed children have to our unreconciled history of violence is to respond to our silence and denials with even greater violence. But even their violence is frustrated. They want to surpass earlier generations, which is what younger generations always do, they want to advance the story. But they have a tough act to follow; how does one top genocide? Or hundreds of years of free labor and lynching? And they will continue to kill until we can talk honestly about slavery and reparations and the Trail of Tears. What is killing us is our refusal to relinquish our romance about ourselves.
Sue Ann Ellington, a distant cousin to Minny Jackson and good friend to The Help, doesn’t live in a small midwestern town or the deep South, but in Hollywood. An antiquated Hollywood that continues to perpetuate the myth that white kids can’t be destroyed by racism and patriarchy in real life as black kids continue to be, because ultimately “they is kind, they is beautiful, they is important”. Too bad our school shooters don’t feel the same way.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”, This is Us: Deconstructing Race, Identity and Sexual Trauma in Jordan Peele’s “Us”