Master is impressively textured formally and presents is nuanced in its discursive considerations, but fails to muster many scares as a horror film.
Amongst the cohort of “social horror” released in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Mariama Diallo’s Master is an altogether different beast. Diallo follows three Black women: Gail (Regina Hall), who has recently been made the first Black female “master” of her college; Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a freshman moving into a supposedly haunted room; and Liv (Broadway transplant Amber Gray), a professor of literature fighting for tenure. Diallo takes the haunted-house tradition to a grand scale, with an entire campus plagued by two ghosts — that of a 17th-century witch, Margaret Millett, who was hanged for her alleged crimes, and Louisa Weeks, the first Black student at Ancaster, who took her own life in Jasmine’s dorm room. Diallo takes an admirably ambitious premise and imbues it with an equally admirable realistic pessimism. She doesn’t trade in any sanguine platitudes beyond advocating for solidarity (and even this is fragile at best), but instead offers a bleak, honest look at liberal racism in America, perhaps the most astute depiction since Get Out. Hall plays Gail with a refined, quiet rage that keeps the film from ever veering into schlock, portraying the desperation of a woman trying to believe that she has, or even could, beat the system. And though her narrative arc does end up feeling rather anticlimactic, Hall’s performance is still the highlight of the flawed film.
Diallo’s primary assertion with Master is that the past and the present reverberate through each other, and that her characters’ circumstances are therefore far more complex than simple “incidents.” Master refuses to settle for half-truths or simplifications, concerning itself with wider ideas, cultures, and institutions rather than specific individuals. Diallo considers the casual cruelty and ignorance of her white characters, but quickly sets this aside — these are observations of symptoms, not the disease itself. It’s an approach that feels genuinely novel amongst its contemporaries, with Diallo aiming far higher than most of Peele’s imitators, and stating quite clearly that the true core of racism and white supremacy can be found everywhere, even in those most enlightened, supposedly sacred spaces. When Jasmine navigates the college, she dips in and out of different eras of education, from the grand Gothic arches of Ancaster College’s inception to the fluorescent lighting of contemporary classrooms, with past and present existing as layers on top of each other, each responsible for the other’s sustaining. To Diallo, neither is privileged, and both are fulfilling the same role in entrenching the college’s dominant values.
Elsewhere, Diallo’s Gothic sets and the pervasive witchcraft history of the college contribute to a solemn, almost church-like atmosphere in many of Master’s campus scenes, connecting two of the most significant American institutions, particularly in regards to propagating white supremacist ideology. As secularism crept in and academia took the place of religion in preserving and disseminating knowledge, new places of worship were built, temples to whiteness that could preserve and perpetuate white supremacy, with the names of slave owners and racist mega-donors emblazoned above their doors. Supposedly, in medieval times, a person would be bricked up alive inside the walls of a newly-built church, a blood sacrifice to ensure the foundation never crumbled. In academia’s case, the bodies bricked up in the hallowed walls were never going to be those of the white elites who thrive there, but of the Black students and teachers who were trampled by such institutions’ false promises of meritocracy. The set design in Master captures this particularity, framing its subjects against hostile backdrops, either in the historic college buildings that carry a subtext of slave labor, or against white walls that refuse to admit any attempt at individuality, reminding the characters of just how transitory and impersonal higher education spaces can be. Yet for all this excellent world-building, when the rot in these buildings begins to show, particularly in Gail’s insect-infested campus home, the dread doesn’t hit anywhere near as viscerally as it should.
Which brings us to what is perhaps the main problem with Master: the scares just don’t land. In its subtleties, Master prevails, offering a genuinely incisive look at a higher education system that is irreparably tainted by whiteness. Diallo excels at executing quiet menace, building smaller moments of racial tension to their terrifying culminations (for example, an already dubious house party where Jasmine finds herself at the center of a group of white students aggressively singing lyrics containing the N-word). However, the second Diallo turns her attention to the supernatural, that skill is nowhere to be found, and the most overtly horror-based element of the film fails to have any real impact. Diallo keeps campus superstitions on the periphery of her narrative, again showing her commitment to subtlety, but this lack of focus in the background makes the foreground equally hazy, and ultimately makes Master feel like the work of a director who has distinctly bitten off more than they can chew. The film’s narrative thus ends up too erratic to build any real tension, even if all the component parts are present. What Diallo has ultimately crafted is a commendable misfire, successful in all kinds of micro-measures, but failing in sum to sustain the power of its parts.
You can currently stream Mariama Diallo’s Master on Amazon Prime Video.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.