Director: Mariama Diallo
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray
Institutional racism comes under sharp and shrewd scrutiny in Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master, a fresh addition to the growing subgenre of wintry campus horrors that forefront the experiences of women (snappy title pending). Here Diallo takes on the collegial experience from the vantage of two different generations; examining the microaggressions directed toward both students and faculty members alike.
Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is one of just a handful of young Black women in attendance at illustrious New England university Ancaster. In keeping with the region’s folklore, tales of witchery and curses haunt the dormitories, with Jasmine’s room particularly tied to a recent tragedy. Her newly-appointed college ‘master’ is Gail (Regina Hall), whose allegiance to her friend and fellow Black lecturer Liv (Amber Gray) is tested by her desire to appear impartial before her peers on the tenure board.
The ensuing two-pronged approach is astute and assured enough to temper the supernatural elements lurking in the margins… for the first half at least. Indeed, the everyday dramas, prejudices and hypocrisies itemised by Diallo provide more than enough substance for Master to succeed, and her handling of these incidents is particularly deft. Master is at it’s best when zeroing in on seemingly innocuous comments and mannerisms that the college’s white constituents affect without thinking. Supposedly harmless and sometimes unintentional, but which prick at Jasmine and Gail like daggers and keep them tethered to an enduring racial trauma.
On meeting Jasmine for the first time, some of her white peers playfully call her Beyoncé, Lizzo, Nicki Minaj. It’s both given and taken in good humour, but Renee’s softly calibrated performance also registers a low wince throughout the scene. The cumulative effect of this kind of inner tension is then unpacked through slightly hokey psychological horror. The legend of the witch starts plaguing Jasmine and, when more overt acts of racial terrorism start occurring on campus (including but not limited to burning crosses), she struggles to find anyone to turn to.
Master takes on tokenism and performative gestures, needling at the paranoia in both Jasmine and Gail that their very presence on campus is foremost for the purpose of optics. In the process Diallo exposes an ongoing strain in American academia. The USA is so steeped in racial injustice that the path out of it is wrenched and painful, or – as suggested here – nothing but pretense. The legacy and endurance of institutions is not in their ability to change, but to remain the same. What then of genuine progress?
Master is so successful in exploring these issues and questions that it’s latter-stage elements of supernatural horror feel out of balance. While the film admirably eschews a number of clichés and throws in an unpleasant and impactful curveball or two, it never really feels as though it’s two selves connect with one another. This feels especially true of a subplot involving a nearby Mormon-like commune, which Diallo uses to further the tensions between Gail and Liv. It has a point to make about how such institutions can promote minority in-fighting, but results in something that feels like a narrative detour. Master is admirably ambitious and thoughtful enough already.
Anyone looking for or expecting a conventional horror ramp-up, frequent jolts or even a bit of craven bloodletting might find themselves frozen out by Diallo’s studious and mostly chilly thesis. The dark arts here feel like window-dressing for an eminently watchable critique of a broken system. The promise of scares might bring punters in the doors, but Diallo’s real prizes are her own acute observations and a clutch of impressive performances. Particularly good are the two leads; veteran Scary Movie-goer Hall and wide-eyed ingenue Renee.
She may be flunking horror, but Diallo’s term paper on inequality is worth more than a passing grade.