Starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray, Molly Bernard, Nike Kadri, Ella Hunt, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Bruce Altman, Noa Fisher, Anna Van Patten, D.C. Anderson, Angela Grovey , Will Hochman, John Kroft, Kara Young, Emmett Carnahan, Megan Byrne, Orlagh Cassidy, Robert Emmet Lunney, Joel de la Fuente, Jennifer Dundas and Julia Nightingale.
Screenplay by Mariama Diallo.
Directed by Mariama Diallo.
Distributed by Amazon Studios. 98 minutes. Rated R.
The word “master” has a lot of meanings – and a lot of resonance – in Mariama Diallo’s chilling and thought-provoking film.
The first and most obvious one – Gail Bishop played by Regina Hall has gotten her dream job as the first African American headmaster at a small New England college called Ancaster. Then there is the question of the students trying to master their studies, master their personal lives, master their fears. And, of course, in a film about a few Black women struggling to survive in a nearly all-white college – even one with the liberal and intellectual bonafides of Ancaster – the term master has more sinister historical undertones.
The fact is, very little is as it seems in Master. If you simply watch the trailer for the film, you would be excused for thinking that Master was a straight-up horror film. In certain ways it is. It uses many of the trappings of horror – the jump cuts, the eerie music, the dream sequences, the shadowy figures in the dark.
However, Master has a lot more on its agenda than just being a fright flick. The supernatural forces, the strangers lurking in the shadows and the sudden violence mask a more nuanced and thoughtful plan. In fact, it appears many of the horror elements are mostly symbolic. Diallo is using the trappings of a horror film to study the racial discrepancies in a world of monied white privilege, even one which seems to be woke and right-thinking.
Master is sort of like Jordan Peele’s Get Out – minus most of the humorous elements.
It’s a delicate balancing act, one that does not always work, but also one that makes some devastating points of debate.
The film focuses mostly on the parallel unravelling of two Black women in their first semester at the college. (We are only shown four Black people in the film – all women – however, a line of dialogue suggests there are a few others spread out on campus.)
The first one is Bishop – the new master mentioned above – whose dream job is slowly devolving into a nightmare. She is not sleeping. She is hearing strange sounds in the night. She is seeing odd people dressed in pilgrim garb lurking in the dark of campus.
The other is Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a freshman who has been placed in an allegedly “haunted” dorm room. (An earlier Black student had hung herself in the same room years earlier.) She finds herself walking in her sleep, having confrontations with her roommate (Talia Ryder) and her other supposed friends, and being followed around campus by shadowy figures. People are carving the word “Leave” on her door and leaving a noose hung on her doorknob.
She is also having problems as a student for the first time in her academic career. A teacher (a Black professor) gives her a hard time for not finding racial overtones in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – one of the whitest pieces of literature in American history. This leads to a stand-off with that professor, who is trying to get tenure and is afraid that Jasmine’s complaints may be a blot on her record. However, it seems the professor has deeper secrets and concerns than that.
How much of this is happening, and how much is just their overburdened imaginations running wild? We never really know, and we probably shouldn’t. The film’s ambiguity is one of its powers.
An argument could be made that the horror movie trappings somewhat trivialize the important sociological points the Master is seeming to make, and that would not be completely inaccurate, either. However, Master is a thought-provoking and often chilling film which deserves to be seen.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 17, 2022.