Horror being used as an allegory for racism has become familiar in recent years. Films like Get Out and the recent Candyman have fully leaned into the horrors of racism in America. In Master, three Black women face the struggle of finding their place in the elite Northeastern university, Ancaster College (a fictional Ivy League-like school). One is the newly appointed “Master” of a residence hall, one is a popular professor up for tenure, and one is a freshman starting her first year at the institution. Although these three women are at different points of their careers, they clash and come into contact with the ugly face of this historically white and male-dominated school.
The directorial debut of Mariama Diallo, Master is immediately fascinating as it threads the needle of presenting complex ideas deftly enough in a way that doesn’t feel like preaching. Gail (Regina Hall), Liv (Amber Gray), and Jasmine (Zoe Renee) all share a point of connection with Gail being the Master of Jasmine’s residence house, Live as her professor, and Gail and Liv being close friends. Yet they do not represent the same Black experience. Their differences and how they clash, not only with the rest of the university but, with each other, is what makes the film so compelling.
At multiple points in the film, each woman is faced with the microaggressions and racism of the institution they are a part of. Gail is repeatedly told to leverage her position as the “first Black woman to be the Master” by her non-Black colleagues. She is burdened with the position of being the first and with the desire to see real change in the influencing of young minds. Her intentions are good, but she is facing up against a beast.
Similarly, Liv is up for tenure as a professor, and in a school that is predominantly white, she faces the potential that she might receive tenure due to Ancaster’s desire to appear diverse, but also the worry that the college might pass her over because Gail has recently been promoted. Liv’s race is almost always a part of the conversation when the professors are talking about the consideration. When Liv’s complicated past comes to light, she and Gail come into direct conflict and are confronted with their own assumptions about identity and race.
In some ways, Jasmine is caught between these two. Approaching Ancaster with anticipation, Jasmine’s excitement is soon dampened when she is placed into a supposedly haunted dorm, is surrounded by people who do not understand her, and begins to struggle with grades in Liv’s class. As a perpetual good student, Jasmine is shocked that she is held to a higher standard by Liv and therefore receives a failing grade (her first ever).
Although she launches a complaint against Liv, her interactions with Liv and Gail are among the few in the film that are not laced with overt and subtle racism. Her classmates either fetishize her or terrorize her. At her first party, she dances among other white students to a rap song that she likes, but the joy is soon sucked out of the experience, as the white guys start shouting the lyrics with full force (dropping n-words as they do). Later, she returns to her dorm to a horrific message left at the door: a noose hanging on the doorknob telling her to leave.
That Diallo is able to tell so much story while also layering in elements of the supernatural, historical horror, and dark academia is a testament to her skill. Her script is smart, with the three protagonists written with unique and defined voices. It’s impossible to root against them as they face the monster that is institutionalized racism. Diallo almost lands a perfect score with this one but in the third act the film takes a turn for the darkest timeline, and it’s an ending that makes me wonder if it was necessary to put these women through even more pain.
But the message is clear – these universities are spaces that were created for and dominated by old white men. They are a part of the very foundation of the system and creating something new from that foundation can be difficult if not impossible. Diallo strikes that chord perfectly, and one can feel her familiarity with the subject as a graduate of Yale herself. With a stellar cast and inspired direction, Master is a thrilling and potent horror story about academia that has made its impact.
Master premiered at Sundance this week and is scheduled to be released on Amazon Prime on March 18.