Written and Directed by Mariama Diallo.
Starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Ella Hunt, Noa Fisher, Kara Young, Bruce Altman, Jennifer Dundas, Joel de la Fuente, and Anna Van Patten.
Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
It’s tough to call Master terrifying in a traditional sense. Some of its attempts at horror involve things going bump in the night, just how modern audiences have been programmed to expect for a while now. However, the longer the feature-length debut from writer and director Mariama Diallo goes on, gradually revealing the history of Ivy League college Ancaster, some details regarding descendants of the New England settlers that live nearby on the land, and some startling information about a particular character, not to mention what the supernatural force represents all come together in a disorientingly complex fashion that’s nothing short of queasy for what it justifiably suggests regarding diversity and racism in America.
That’s not to say the first two acts are necessarily slow or dull, but Master is ultimately about the bigger picture within its multi-generational narrative spanning various Black characters and their experience fitting into a predominantly white college. That involves freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee, terrific at playing frightened while also playing up the terror invoked by the social sentiments of the story), who has ended up with a supposedly haunted room where a Black girl in the 1950s ended up taking her life. Jasmine also shares this room with Amelia (Never Rarely Sometimes Always‘ Talia Ryder), a socially unconscious friend who gets dragged into the spookiness by association, also as they develop a bit of a rivalry. However, much of Jasmine’s time is spent researching several files, trying to connect the dots on what happened in the past. Thankfully, it’s also not done in that clunky Googling all the answers way that too much modern horror relies on.
Regina Hall is Gail, the first Black professor to earn the headmaster title. It’s a position that, on the surface, implies that there is some progressive thinking going on in the upper hierarchy of this institution. That is until Gail starts experiencing similar hauntings inside of a decrepit living space that gives the job an aura of thanklessness. She also slowly begins to see the cracks in this mirror of progressivism, as her teacher friend Liv (Amber Gray) deals with subtle racial micro-aggressions as her suitability for earning tenure comes into question at the hands of a grading dispute leveled against her by Jasmine. It also needs to be mentioned that Regina Hall is excellent in this role, not just for playing up the terror aspect but also because the story demands extra emotional weight from her once all the specifics are aligned and she delivers. Again, the last 30 minutes of Master transcend some of the familiar genre trappings into a piece of work profoundly infuriating.
Master comes across as a brutally honest and horrible reality of how whiteness still dominates even when Blackness is invited into the inner circle without spoiling too much. It also depicts how morals can be compromised to have a seat at the table. Other characters wonder if the seed at that table is even worth having at the cost of shedding such dignity. It’s also gratifying that Master somewhat sets itself up to go one way in its third act before fully taking the viewer by surprise in its gut-wrenching trajectory.
Perhaps if there was a tighter, scarier movie in the first hour or if the story played its cards a little earlier, Master would be a genuinely exceptional horror debut. But it’s still the stuff of American nightmares when it comes together; a uniquely scathing look at the racism of past and present. There’s not much more terrifying than that.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com