SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Horror reflects the collective fears of the public consciousness. As this country slowly trudges to a reckoning of its institutional racism, we will hopefully be benefactors to more strong, assured cinematic voices such as writer-director Mariama Diallo. Her feature-length debut, Master, takes place at the fictional New England-based Ancaster College, an ivory-towered “prestige” institution that boasts a long list of political progeny.
It’s the start of a new academic year, and the college is congratulating itself on its progressive attitude in hiring Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) as its first black “master,” or dean of students (never mind all the people of color who populate the menial tasks all around campus). Additionally, we meet Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), a wide-eyed freshman who is one of the few black students there. Upon arriving, she’s told that her room is haunted after a former student hanged themselves in it more than a century ago. Jasmine has a history of sleepwalking, and this news serves as a catalyst for a set of nightmares.
Master rounds out its lead narratives with Liv (Amber Gray), a professor seeking tenure despite a thin publishing past. Her attempts to get a campus diversity initiative underway bring her into contact with Jasmine and Gail. As the three women’s fates intersect at various points, each finds their own coping mechanisms for dealing with the academic institution’s boastful public perception and its insidious legacy.
“…her room is haunted after a former student hanged themselves in it more than a century ago.”
Diallo demonstrates a mastery of mood. The color grading is outstanding, proving just enough contrast between shadow and light to illustrate the dichotomy within the school. Yet, despite its pristine polish, there’s always the feeling that something is lurking just barely out of frame. The filmmaker throws in familiar horror tropes — bug infestations, nightmarish visions, cloaked apparitions, creaking off-camera sounds — that become all-the-more threatening under the weight of the school’s racist history. Added to this are the more modern-day horrors of the microaggressions each of the ladies face: Gail is called “Barack” by white colleagues celebrating her new title. Jasmine goes to a party where the white attendees are all-too-eager to yell the N-word when a popular rap tune drops. Liv’s heritage is called into question.
Master deserves credit for taking on so many issues, even if it does not satisfyingly deal with them by the conclusion. Several threads are left frayed by that one wishes the film could have provided some resolution. It’s certainly not the fault of its leads, all of whom have never been better. Renee (perhaps best known for 2018’s Jinn) possesses a vulnerability over her steely determination. Gray (last seen in the Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad) shines as a dedicated educator who swallowed much pride for her shot at tenure. But it’s Hall (who also serves as producer) who deserves the lion’s share of the praise. Her unflagging dedication and professionalism in the face of daily barbs and thorns from the school are top-tier performance levels.
Diallo’s dramatic horror film is rich with atmosphere and subtext and deserves recognition, despite its narrative shortcomings. Plus, the three leads elevate the material with their fantastic performances. Master may leave many aspects of its narrative open-ended, but then again, the struggle for those in similar situations in the U.S. today is a still-bleeding wound.
Master screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
"…rich with atmosphere and subtext, and deserves recognition..."