Blumhouse Looks to Challenge a Notorious Racial Trope with ‘Ma’

Octavia Spencer stars in the new Blumhouse horror movie, which subverts the racist “mammy” trope but has a predominantly white, male production team.
Octavia Spencer Ma
By  · Published on February 18th, 2019

This week, Blumhouse Productions released the trailer for a much-anticipated new release: the horror film Ma, which stars Octavia Spencer in the titular role. The movie follows a group of teenagers who befriend Spencer’s character when she buys them alcohol and offers up her basement for their house parties — but the strange friendship quickly takes a turn for the worse, as Ma is not who she appears.

For many, it’s exciting to see Spencer tackle such an uncharacteristic role, especially one that seems to be a commentary on the portrayal of black women in film. Upon further inspection, it’s a shame to see that Ma has an all-white and all-male production team, but Blumhouse has pledged an encouraging diversity push in the months since the movie began filming.

Perhaps not as overtly as the 2017 Blumhouse release Get Out, the trailer for Ma suggests that a notorious racial trope will be turned on its head. The title itself evokes the “mammy” archetype, a black female character who works as a caretaker for white children. We rarely see the “mammy” outside of her job — and indeed, hardly know anything of her life — because she exists merely for the benefit of the white characters she works for. This trope can be seen on screen most infamously in Gone With The Wind, and more recently in 2011’s The Help, which starred Spencer and was directed by Ma helmer Tate Taylor.

If the trailer is any indication, Ma seems to subvert the “mammy” archetype. Spencer’s character is purposely shrouded in mystery — she doesn’t let the predominantly white group of teenagers upstairs in her home, she inexplicably collects all of their contact information, and she inserts herself into their lives in increasingly sinister ways. Decoding her backstory and understanding her motivations for terrorizing the kids is the whole point of the film, which makes her the most powerful character in it. This contrasts with the typical “mammy” character, who rarely receives a backstory nor seems to have any sort of life beyond her work. In fact, Ma draws the kids in by assuming a persona that is at once chummy and maternal, exploiting their trust — and perhaps revealing their preconceived biases against black women.

This kind of clever commentary on the black female experience is certainly welcome, so it’s disappointing that Blumhouse passed on an opportunity to hire black women. Instead, they tapped Taylor to direct and co-write the script with Scotty Landes (Adam Devine’s House Party, Workaholics), and the film is being produced by Taylor, John Norris, and Jason Blum. Blum, who founded Blumhouse, came under fire this year for claiming that there “are not a lot of female directors period,” and that the ones who do exist are uninterested in directing horror; of course, this isn’t the case at all, and Blum subsequently apologized.

Despite the missteps, Blumhouse continues to release a number of films that tackle racial commentary — they produced 2019 Best Picture nominee BlackKklansman and are behind Jordan Peele’s highly-anticipated sophomore effort Us, which is led by Lupita Nyong’o. As a film starring a black woman, and one that seems to make a statement about the roles that black women occupy in cinema, Ma could certainly have the same cultural salience that Get Out had and continues to have. It’s a step in the right direction, but bringing in black female creative influence for future films would be the true accomplishment, both for an audience that is receptive to these details and for a company that is working on better off-screen representation.

The changes at Blumhouse are warranted. The company has done an underwhelming job in employing female directors, as Blum has acknowledged; only two of its feature films have been directed by women and only one of those was a horror film. Unfortunately, the idea that women directors are scarce or indifferent to genre fare is not new. In 2016, producer Kathleen Kennedy made a similar comment about female directors not having “sufficient experience” to direct a Star Wars film, and director Colin Trevorrow claimed that women do not have a desire to direct genre blockbusters. The reality is that popular horror films led by black women are a viable product, and there’s no reason why those films shouldn’t be produced, directed and written by black women too. In an industry where black women are so frequently shut out of opportunities to direct any film, it seems obvious that they should at least have access to their own stories.

With Ma scheduled for release in May, and Blumhouse set to release a number of other films this year with creative teams that have yet to be announced, there is hope that they’re choosing from a broader pool of talent. It’s heartening to see that they’ve hired Sophia Takal to direct an installment for their Hulu series In the Dark and that they’ve struck a new deal with Amazon that includes employing diverse talent. No matter these small improvements, it’s a shame that they couldn’t come before Ma was put into production, as it could very well be a smash hit. In the meantime, Blumhouse is coming around by fostering diversity in front of and behind the camera — off-screen representation matters, too.

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Jenna is a writer from Montreal. When not rewatching 'Broadcast News', she can be found working on a master's degree in journalism.