Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 29th, 2022
Master (Mariama Diallo, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.
In Master, director Mariama Diallo’s feature debut, there is no horror more frightening than that of real life. In this, the movie falls squarely in the new, evocative trend of genre fiction where the elements drawn from the actuality of racism prove worse than the supernatural. Unfortunately, unlike films and shows such as Get Outand HBO’s Lovecraft Country, both exceptional in their marriage of narrative and ideology, Master doesn’t quite get the mix right, mostly because the script usually tells us what we should be feeling, rather than allowing us to reach a dawning understanding of our own. This didactic approach notwithstanding, the movie still delivers powerful moments anchored in strong performances from leads Regina Hall (Support the Girls) and Zoe Renee (Gully).
Hall plays Gail Bishop, who is the first Black woman appointed as “Master” of Ancaster College’s Belleville House, a residential dormitory where her position serves as both mentor and parental figure to the students in her care. Gail is also one of the very few academics of color—and even fewer women of color—at the school, and though she has heretofore adapted to such circumstances, her new role will dredge up all sorts of long-buried feelings, fears, and insecurities. The title of Master thereby serves multiple purposes, referencing our nation’s history of slavery and the question of whether the advancement of a token few can erase that past brutality.
Enter Jasmine Moore (Renee), a first-year African American student excited to leave California for a New England setting and the storied legend of a college that has produced “two U.S. Presidents and an army of Senators,” as Gail announces at orientation. That joy is marred, however, by the mystery of the room she is assigned. Apparently, it is haunted, though no one will tell her by what or by whom. It soon becomes clear, though, that whether or not there is a bona fide ghost on the grounds is less important than the daily microaggressions to which Jasmine’s classmates subject her.
She even gets a hard time from Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray, The Weekend), the one other Black woman on the payroll, who assigns a paper about race in The Scarlet Letter, a theme Jasmine feels does not exist in the novel. Liv is up for tenure, so her subsequent conflict with Jasmine does not help. The mostly white members of the review board already don’t think much of her scholarship and are looking for any reason to reject her, even intimidating Gail to temper her own support (and she and Liv are friends). Meanwhile, Jasmine and Gail each encounter spirits and visions that bring the school’s legacy of white supremacy to the surface. Little acts of resistance lead to greater consequences, without support from those around them, who choose to gaslight, instead.
Diallo’s mise-en-scène is sometimes skilled, sometimes less so, resorting to horror clichés one time too many, even if some of the scenes still prove unsettling. In addition, the tragic resolution of one of the plot threads does not resonate as it should, that character’s action not believable given her resilience up to that point. Ultimately, the film is at its best in the moments where personal interactions do the work of exposition. The only result of heavy-handed dialogue is to fire off bullet points that land with a thud. Nevertheless, as an exposé of the sins, former and present, of American higher ed (and America, in general), Master manages to provoke genuine unease and provide ample food for thought.