Mariama Diallo’s “Master” isn’t the kind of traumatic horror film that interrogates racism solely as a fright in itself. Diallo is too smart for that. This mesmerizing freak out, a psychologically brutal witch and ghost story, pulls in viewers with smart writing, and even more brilliant performances. It explicates colorism, racial passing, micro-aggressions, and the crushing pressures of Black Excellence not as history-teaching, example-making cudgels, but as illnesses that live and breathe beneath and above the surface of America.
Set in the imposing halls of Ancaster College, a prestigious northeastern institution so exclusive it counts itself above Harvard (even FDR had a hard time getting in), “Master” coats the present-day school in the lingering air of the Salem witch trials. Centuries earlier a woman by the name of Margaret Millett was hanged there for witchcraft. School folklore now says that every year her ghost picks one freshman and, on the anniversary of her death at 3:33am, takes the unlucky soul with her.
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The primary specter igniting the ancient fears in “Master” isn’t totally what creaks at night. The racism is so deep in both the past and present of the school that it’s seeped itself into every brick and every portrait of a frightening pale, white college founder adorning the walls. It’s the kind of place where the faces populating the pictures on the diversity package are the only eight people of color currently enrolled. The privileged white folks who attend know they belong. The few Black feel they must prove their worth.
That’s the uneasy situation Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), the new — and first — Black Master at the college is entering. The all-white tenured faculty have brought her in to essentially clean up their lack of diversity. Likewise, new freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a young bright Black girl and the valedictorian of her high school class, stumbles through the same pressures. Jasmine is assigned the dreaded room 302, with Amelia (Talia Ryder), an affluent, but troubled white girl as her roommate.
Both Gail and Jasmine face a series of micro-aggressions: They’re compared by their white counterparts to Barack Obama, Beyonce, the Williams sisters. Diallo throws these gut punches, which both women must endure without a grimace, with the same dexterity as Jordan Peele with “Get Out,” during the Armitages’ annual get together. It would be a mistake, however, to totally compare the two films. “Master” runs on a different, more overt track: White men leer at Jasmine as an exotic other while she dances during a college house party. When Chop Mui’s “Black AGAVE” blasts over the speakers, the white bros exuberantly dance around a frightened Jasmine, and mouth every word, including the “n-word,” without hesitation.
Nothing comes easy to Jasmine. Even Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a Black professor who should be on her side, gives her an “F” on a Critical Race Theory paper about “The Scarlet Letter” while awarding her white classmates a passing grade. Liv is fighting against her racist colleagues for tenureship, and is hyper-aware of the ways she feels like she doesn’t belong. Is Liv holding Jasmine to a higher, nearly unattainable Black Excellence standard? Or are there more nefarious reasons for her stringent expectations? An elastic Gray is always purposefully overplaying her hand for a ruminative effect. The other beauty is Diallo’s patient, organic writing, which allows viewers to turn these seemingly disparate clues over, each more innocuous than the last, until they reach their unpredictable ends.
In this aching movie Diallo asks: At what cost should Black folks seek approval gatekeepers? Is the mental anguish that accompanies such trials ever worth it? At one point, Gail implores Jasmine not to quit. She explains how racism is the ghost that’ll never depart, how you can only be erased in this world if you surrender. It’s the kind of grit your teeth philosophy Black women are often pushed to accept if they want to succeed. But it’s advice that Gail soon learns doesn’t hold much weight in the face of your own mental well-being.
There’s a similar rich nimbleness in what initially comes across as a clumsy melding of two ghost stories: The spirit of a Black maid employed by a rich white family who once lived in Gail’s home haunts her, while a mysterious white voice calls the house phone asking for a daughter named “Elizabeth.” Diallo meshes these fascinating threads with Jasmine’s own specters: Recurring red neon nightmares of a dark hooded figure visit the freshman, a noose is mysteriously hung outside her door, a burning cross appears, and the memory of another Black girl — who attended the school in 1965 as its first African-American student but ultimately died by suicide — consumes her. In the vat of this crucible, the legend of the Salem Witch trials serves as a macguffin that Diallo sometimes over-teases.
A gripping Renee as Jasmine (she first broke out in Nijla Mumin’s sweet coming-of-age flick “Jinn”) imbues the frights with gravity, even when the film turns languid. Owing to a reliance on chapter titles, “Master” slows, nearly leaning too often on its scares, which often recall Bernard Rose’s “Candyman,” in DP Charlotte Hornsby’s eerie, red-soaked compositions set in a library and a bathroom. The mythology Diallo carefully built in the first act of the film takes a backseat temporarily, causing friction between the world building and the horror.
By way of Hall’s potent, internal performance (the actress has rarely been better) and Diallo sharpening the edges of her dense, multidimensional script to interrogate race through horror, rather than the scares being the horror itself, “Master” finds its footing again. A testament to this filmmaker’s shrewd craftsmanship: The final twenty minutes, recalling the “The Shining,” loops in Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s ghoulish score, and unpacks so many secrets involving colorism, passing, white paternalism, and so forth, that you wonder how Diallo kept it all together without every frame crumbling in her hands. It’s simply amazing. Detailed and deliberate, assertive but rarely obvious, Diallo’s “Master” is a towering, inventive shot in the arm for Black horror.
“Master” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it later this year.
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