Written and directed by Mariama Diallo.
Starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, and Amber Gray.
Two Black women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
One suspects that Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master is going to receive its fair share of comparisons to 2019’s ill-advised Black Christmas remake, given that both films take aim at the rotten cores of centuries-old American educational institutions. Yet it’s a superficial similarity, given that while Black Christmas lampooned toxic masculinity and rape culture, Diallo’s film trains its focus on entrenched racism.
At the elite New England university Ancaster College, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has won the coveted position of “master” – aka dean of students – though soon realises that her elevated standing only gives her a more panoramic view of the college’s superficially inclusive veneer.
On the student side, we follow freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), who struggles to acclimate to a predominantly white environment filled with “casual” racism and unearned assumptions about her background. But it soon becomes clear that there’s a far more threatening force walking the halls of Ancaster – one she’ll need to confront if she’s to survive the year.
The success of Get Out certainly underlined the audience appetite for satirical-yet-serious-minded genre films about the existential terror of merely existing as a Black person, and Master follows in that tradition. Diallo’s film is unquestionably at its best in its searing first act, which explores the dread and anxiety of Jasmine being one of the few Black students at a school practically as old as the U.S. itself, its student body an endless sea of white faces.
When Jasmine first arrives on campus, a white student greets her with the phrase, “We got a live one!,” and while she could simply be referring to Jasmine’s status as a fresher, it’s impossible not to read the darker implications of the comment. Diallo’s script shines best in its depiction of the more subtly racist actions and micro-aggressions directed Jasmine’s way; of course her fellow students expect her to clean up for them, and the white librarian asks to inspect her bag when she sets the alarm off.
Even a Black academic, Liv (Amber Gray), treats her with condescension, forcing Jasmine to emphatically state that she’s from the suburbs and far from a charity case. Before long Jasmine is approached by one of the few Black students on campus to join the Black Student Union, broaching the complex question of whether to clique together in defined groups or attempt to integrate into the wider, white collective.
Gail, despite her prestigious station at Ancaster, is meanwhile forced to reckon with the college’s more outwardly problematic past, in one scene discovering a racist cookie jar in her on-campus accommodation, and then having to fight tooth and nail for Liv to be considered for tenure. The belief of at least some colleagues, it seems, is that Gail won’t be impartial when considering another Black woman for the role.
None of this is fired through with subtlety, but then it’s not a subtle issue. Where Master comes unstuck is when it realises it “needs” to also be a more typical horror excursion that delivers a pulse-quickening set-piece every 10-15 minutes. Sadly none of these tepid, generic setups rise above mildly spooky, whether Jasmine feeling watched in an empty shower room or Gail discovering a painting infested with maggots. By the time we’re sitting through goofy nightmare sequences, it’s tough not to feel like these scenes were added at the behest of a producer.
By far the most effective “scare” sequence is something much simpler but also far more believable; the white attendees of a college party loudly repeating the n-word numerous times with clear relish while singing a Sheck Wes song, all while ominously surrounding Jasmine. This scene alone is loaded with more psychological brutality and upsetting plausibility than anything in the more standard horror set-ups.
The third act is interesting yet tricky to discuss without going into spoilers; it’s certainly unexpected in veering away from genre typicality and subverting the sort of fist-pumping, vengeance-filled finale many will be hoping for. It perhaps races through its juicier reveals a little too hastily, but Diallo’s refusal to indulge the schlockier potential of her ending should be commended, settling on something more painfully true to life.
Diallo’s direction is generally fairly functional throughout, but she clearly has fun with some genre-nodding 70s-style zooms and giallo-inspired neon-red lighting. She also delivers a delicious feat of juxtaposition by cutting between an hilariously tongue-in-cheek college promo video about inclusivity and the sight of a burned cross being hauled off Ancaster’s courtyard. It’s easy to get the impression that Diallo simply wasn’t interested in the more formulaic horror elements, hence why those scenes feel so lifeless and stock.
Cast-wise everybody here turns in fine work; Zoe Renee gives a winning performance as the traumatised Jasmine, though it’s ultimately Regina Hall who benches the bulk of the dramatic weight. There’s a quiet sadness to Hall’s turn that only becomes more abundantly aching as the story wears on. It’s a thoroughly compelling dramatic performance, and further proof that she’s one of the most underrated performers of her generation.
It never quite lives up to the potential of its concept due to the fatally undercooked genre elements, but the anguished human stories at its core just about win out regardless. Master proves far more effective as a drama about institutional racism than a conventional horror film, but Regina Hall’s mighty performance is the glue holding it all together.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.