Stories on racism are an important tool to combat prejudice as well as educate communities on the effects their words and actions have. Even if your intentions aren’t driven by negative thoughts or emotions, they can be derived from habits formed over years and decades of learning racism subconsciously. It’s pretty much what critical race theory is about and why it needs to be part of a balanced history lesson in schools. Every course correction to learning is perceived to be an attack on tradition, but tradition can become stagnant and rot if it does not have the opportunity to evolve.
In Master, written and directed by Mariama Diallo, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has been hired as the new head of college, or master, at Ancaster College. She is warmly welcomed by the faculty and looks forward to a bright future at this historic institution. Meanwhile, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is a bright student with plenty of noteworthy accomplishments. She is starting her freshman year on campus and can’t wait to make new friends. Her roommate is excited to experience college life with her as well. Gail and Jasmine are at different chapters in their lives, but both of them share one thing. They are some of the only black people that attend this college.
The campus isn’t devoid of diversity. Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) is an English professor and the only other black woman that Gail can confide in. Liv is proud of her heritage and critical of the patriarchy. Her teaching style causes a rift between her and Jasmine, which leads to tension down the line. Apart from Professor Beckman and a small group of students, the only other black presence is the cleaning and serving staff. The student body is primarily white and their only experience with black culture is in entertainment. They love the music and the dancing, but otherwise, they keep an emotional and intellectual distance from getting to know Jasmine or anyone else personally. Combine that with the college myth about a witch that attacks students and kills them and you have an environment that can feel isolating. Jasmine and Gail begin to sense that something strange and supernatural may be happening at this school. The truth may be far more terrifying.
As you try to unravel the mysterious hallucinations and sounds that surround Jasmine and Gail, you also get to witness the subtle racism around them. It can be as harmless as questioning Gail’s impartiality in a black friend’s tenure application; or more overt like searching Jasmine’s backpack when it triggers the metal detector at the library. You can easily make competing arguments for both situations; but when you are on the receiving end of all of those situations, the evidence begins to pile up. Especially when so many before them have endured worst-case scenarios in similar instances and died as a result. It’s difficult to ignore and yet it often is because the ones not enduring it just want to move on.
The atmosphere is probably the best part about this movie. Mariama Diallo does a great job of conveying dread and foreboding. You are almost instantly unsettled by the behavior of the staff and welcoming committee. A simple look or stare is all it takes to drain the life from your body. The lighting is a huge element. I’ve never seen so much red light used for hallways and windows. I want to say it’s for dramatic effect and symbolizes the characters’ further descent into the eerie world of this college. Or red light is the college’s way of saving on energy bills. The music is also quite effective in enhancing the tension. Again you are almost certain of one of two things. Either the school is haunted or everyone here is out to get them.
It’s hard not to see the influence Jordan Peele has on this film. The way racism is interwoven into the supernatural elements. How the camera makes you feel like you are being lured into a trap or something equally horrifying. I find the comparison to be as admirable as it is frustrating. It feels like both a horror movie and a thriller, but then you wonder if it’s more a commentary on society and its shortcomings. The combination of all three makes the most sense and that would be an interesting angle to take. It’s the execution that doesn’t quite work for me. There are too many threads that are fed to the audience that lead nowhere. It’s alright to have moments of ambivalence, but the film itself shouldn’t throw tropes at us and disregard their primary usage.
Master is a film I have mixed emotions about. The acting is really good and I enjoyed how the film is edited together. I also support its message. It’s never too late to reevaluate your views on race and how you choose to engage with others. We all have a responsibility to strengthen the bonds of our community. The only way we can truly come together is by identifying prejudices and dismantling their hold on our language and decisions. Lofty goals I know, but it’s not an impossible one. Every negative idea we act on is a choice. So why not choose a positive action instead.
Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
Director: Mariama Diallo
Writer: Mariama Diallo
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Julia Nightingale
Runtime: 1 Hour, 38 Minutes
Releases: March 18th, 2022 (USA)