Why It's Still Radical To Make A Horror Film Like 'Ma' With A Black Female Villain

Octavia Spencer stars in the new gory thriller, "Ma." The film is directed by Tate Taylor ("The Help"). (Universal Pictures)

You may think you're a big scary movie fan, but Tananarive Due likely has you beat. The author and screenwriter is such a fan of the genre that she's made a career out of watching, studying, and writing about scary movies.

At UCLA, Due teaches courses on Afrofuturism and black horror — her class "The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and Black Horror Aesthetic" famously attracted the attention of writer/director Jordan Peele, who popped in on a class while students were watching a scene from his groundbreaking film Get Out.

Due says her love of the genre was originally sparked by her mom, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who introduced her to "Creature Features" and Stephen King novels at a young age. It was her mom who helped her see a connection between trauma — particularly racial trauma — and the horror genre.

This year, Due executive produced the documentary Horror Noire, based on the 2011 book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman, which traces the history of blackness in horror films.

With so many scary movies coming out this summer, one of them being "Ma," the rare horror film with a black female lead, we turned to Due with some questions.

Here's what she told us:

WHAT IS BLACK HORROR?

Black horror, generally speaking, doesn't necessarily have to be made by black creators. I would say a movie like "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) by George A. Romero is also black horror. It has a black lead in Duane Jones, but it's not just that. What makes that black horror to me is the conversation that film is having with the times it sprang from.

It's made in 1968, the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. The civil unrest, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War — that was all in the air. Even the way that Romero shot it — black-and-white — looks like newsreel footage. And especially at the end, when Duane Jones's body is burned... if you're a black viewer in 1968 watching this movie, you're feeling like this could have been made by a black filmmaker. Jonathan Demme's "Beloved" (1998) is another movie that has that same feel.

Typically, though, black horror is made by black filmmakers and does star black protagonists to tell a black story. That story may or may not be like Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017), where it's literally about race. Other films in this category would include William Crain's "Blacula" (1972) and Rusty Cundieff's "Tales from the Hood" (1995).

Finally, I think sometimes it is enough just to have a black character in a film for it to be considered black horror. I would argue that it's still so rare to have black leads in films — period — that that's revolutionary in and of itself. Just casting a black person can change the way the story is received. In a movie like Colm McCarthy's "The Girl with All the Gifts" (2016), the fact that they cast a biracial actress in the lead role changes the whole prism of the movie. When you see her in what's essentially a juvenile detention facility, it calls to mind racial bias in the criminal justice system.

WHERE DOES 'MA' FIT IN THE HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR?

In one sense, Ma is an example of what we'd call "revenge horror," which does have its appeal. Here's a woman who, you can tell from the trailer, has been invisible and has not been treated well... and here she is getting her revenge.

There is also some history in having a black character in the lead role, playing a villian. The biggest example that comes to mind is "Candyman" (1992), with Tony Todd in the lead role.

People had mixed reactions to "Candyman" when it came out. Any time you have a black villain there will be mixed reactions, because black people are very sensitive about representation. On the one hand it's like Yeah! We're showcased! But then it's like Oh, but we're behaving badly.

"Ma" isn't the only movie with a black woman in the lead villain role. A famous one is the 1974 blaxploitation movie "Abby," where a black woman is possessed by some sort of sex demon.

There was a time when, if an Octavia Spencer was going to be in a horror movie, she would have only appeared as a spiritual guide, or she would die early, or both. Like Alfre Woodard's character in the first "Annabelle," who literally sacrifices herself to save the white characters, but for no real reason. I will say that the Annabelle franchise has improved — it seems like they were trying to correct that a bit with the next film, and that's something that I can get behind.

As for how "Ma" will ultimately fit into the history of black horror, it's still really early to say. A lot of what will dictate that will be the audience reactions. But what I am really happy about is that "Ma" is showing the industry that this idea that blacks can star in horror movies and be a part of the horror genre is alive and well. I'm old enough to remember just a few years ago when you could go pitching around Hollywood with a project, as I have done, and the executives would say, "But do the characters have to be black?"

There is some optimism in the documentary Horror Noire that that is changing, but there still is a ways to go. That's why I'm really rooting for "Ma." I want it to do well because then it opens the door for other filmmakers to make black characters, and it opens the door for black creators — that's really the missing piece. Aside from Jordan Peele, who are the black creators who are going to get their films made?

Editor's note: A version of this story also aired on the radio. Listen to it here.