The Haunting Specters of Bigotry Terrorize in Master (2022)
First Non-Festival Release: March 18, 2022 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Mariama Diallo
Writer: Mariama Diallo
Runtime: 98 Minutes
Starring: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Ancaster College freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) moves onto campus to start her collegiate journey the same day that Dr. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) assumes her new role as Master of one of the dormitories. The semester commences and strange supernatural events plague the duo as they search for a sense of belonging and community on a campus that is hostile underneath its surface. It all comes back to room 302 and the hanging of a witch centuries ago. Has the evil returned, or has it always been at Ancaster?
A capable yet restrained horror drama, Master highlights the institutional horrors of academia present and past.
Interweaving sharp commentary on racism in American education, failures of educational institutions, and the intersections of both, Master centers its narrative on calling out the issues that prevail today. Both Jasmine and Gail experience the supernatural horrors of Ancaster in distinctly different ways. They share the loneliness of feeling like an outsider, the struggle to prove to themselves and others that they belong, and the constant pressure of always feeling eyes on them.
Their experiences, however, diverge in terms of positionality. Jasmine finds herself in the shoes of a student, far from home, with very little in terms of social capital. Her vulnerability is highlighted by how little she can push back against her upper echelon peers and cold staff. Gail, on the other hand, is given more faux acceptance. Her position as a tenured member of faculty with accolades and prestige shields her somewhat from the reality of Ancaster. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to escape the condescension and pressure to reinforce the very norms used against her.
Due to ambition, it doesn’t all fit neatly as one might hope. A brief mention of college sexual assault and a bizarre revelation after the film’s climax add bumps into the road that knock Master down a few notches in terms of narrative cohesiveness. Thankfully, strong performances keep the film on track. While the entire cast delivers here, Regina King stands out from the others. Her vulnerable portrayal of Gail gives life to such a great character. Gail’s journey from accepting her place as a prestigious faculty member to accepting that the hostility isn’t worth the effect if has on her.
Aesthetically, Master looks as plain and generic as the empty dorm rooms at the beginning of the semester. Everything about Ancaster looks bland and unforgiving. This could, of course, be intentional, but it makes it look stale, nonetheless. The filmmaking itself doesn’t lend itself to the same issues. Master is peppered with many a creative shot that adds layers to the film. A personal favorite involves a conversation in a bathroom elevated by the use of mirrors.
There are several directorial choices that cause some tonal friction. A misplaced marketing video particularly confounds more than it adds to the picture. The content itself fits, considering the film, but its placement in the narrative is puzzling. It’s one of many examples of being so on the nose that it hurts. Master thrives when it is critiquing academia in subtle and more nuanced ways. The subplot revolving around Jasmine’s grade dispute is a fantastic example of the hidden power structure being exposed in an eye-opening manner. Moody, atmospheric, and deliberate in pace, Master gets more right than it does wrong.
In the end, Master is a competent film that struggles to cohesively tie all its themes together resulting in a disjointed effort. Its main plot successfully ties the harsh realities of racism in America both past and present for most the film. Its story gets a bit muddled by the time it reaches its climax, but it still subverts some expectations. While it doesn’t work for me there is still plenty to appreciate here between the solid filmmaking and King’s anchoring performance. Ghosts can linger, much like the horrors of the past. Repackaged and reinvented for a new generation, Master reminds us that true terror has a hard habit of dying quickly.
Overall Score? 6/10