One of the larger debates during my senior year of high school was the rift between my Black friends debating the merits of attending a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) or that of a Primarily White Institute (PWI), and what benefits or problems arise from both forms of education. It’s a debate that arises even long after someone graduates from their university of choice, and it’s a tricky subject that I, a person of the alabaster disposition, don’t have a space in debating. Master, the debut feature from Mariama Diallo, takes a head-on approach to the subject, and builds a fascinating genre study about the struggles of being one of the few Black students at a prestigious PWI and the effects it can take on those feeling isolated and dejected from their own communities, surrounded by communities that only seek to dehumanize and fetishize their presence under the marketable guise of diversity. Master is not a light film, but it combines horror and social drama in such an impressive way that you can’t help but be enthralled by its vision.
Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is a tenured professor at the prestigious, picturesque Ancaster University in New England. She has recently taken on the role of House Master for Belleville Hall, a freshman dormitory at the school. Meanwhile, Jasmine Moore (Zoë Renee), a freshman student, and one of the few Black students at Ancaster, is assigned to live in the same hall that Gail presides over. As the school year progresses, they begin to find their new homes increasingly less hospitable as microaggressions ramp up to real aggressions, and the troubled history of the centuries-old University begins to show its face to the two Black women, telling them through dreams, manifestations, and plain old racist incidents, that this school was not made to be hospitable to them, and never will be.
From the get go, there is a pervasive sense of danger in the air with Master. Even before the supernatural visions and eerie atmosphere come into play, there is the feeling from the audience, whether when Jasmine is compared to Beyoncé and Lizzo by her white roommates on her first night, or when Gail is always used as the sole champion for Ancaster’s “diversity,” you simply find yourself, Amityville Horror-style screaming “For God’s sake, get out!,” albeit for an entirely different list of reasons. But that’s also what is so impressive about the setup to Master. While it begins to dig into more straightforward horror territory in its second act, there is a familiar sort of doom that is felt from the audience during the film’s opening act, one that usually revolves around us questioning why a family would stay in a home so clearly haunted. But here, it’s twisted into the grounded question of what do you genuinely do when you’re alone in a place where those around you actively do not want to understand you, a place where you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there due to how prestigious the institution that is clearly shunning you is? It’s a terrifyingly isolating question, and one that I know has been lived by so many people going to watch this film.
What I love so dearly about how this story unfolds is how much of a 50/50 balance it strikes between a drama and a horror film, and how the scares and heartbreak bleed into each other, making the fusion of the two styles of storytelling so successful. Sure, the nightmares Jasmine experiences are frightening in their own right, but being told her views on race are objectively wrong from a professor she viewed to be her ally also elicits the same sort of terror in the viewer, one that isolates and ostracizes both the characters and the audience in their helplessness. Diallo takes a bloodless affair, and turns it into a film that feels as aggressive as any slasher film could ever be.
To put it plainly, Master does not have the power it has without the incredibly dynamic duo that is Regina Hall and Zoë Renee at the center of this film. Both of these actresses bring the damn house down with these different, but equally shattering performances. Hall, who is hosting the Oscars next week, digs into a much different tone than even some of her more serious performances have asked of her. Having experienced much of what the film discusses from her time at Fordham University, Hall brings a naively hopeful air to Gail, one that is so expertly chipped away at throughout the course of the film through Diallo’s screenplay, and Hall’s rousing and heartbreaking realization that she cannot help someone overcome a system that still keeps her down.
Renee, known primarily for her lead performance in Jinn, gives a much quieter, but equally powerful performance opposite Hall. There’s not a single scene in this film focusing on Jasmine where we are not completely disoriented by her experiences and her options in taking on what starts as small acts of microaggressions and transforms into blatant declarations of white supremacy. The line between dreams and reality is perfectly explored through Renee, and her desperation, as the story progresses, has an overwhelming sadness that is hard to shake.
Perfectly complimenting the increasingly disorienting dread of Master is a wonderfully sinister score from Candyman composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who delivers a similarly string heavy, albeit entirely differently constructed descent into the anguished fervor that Master brings about. It’s an expertly assembled score that blends the dreamlike elements, complimenting its picturesque setting and slowly, beautifully twisting it into something far more nefarious. Lowe is two-for-two with his first film scores, and I eagerly await what his next project brings.
Master, the seventh of eight films at SXSW I have seen this year, is perhaps the only one that I can actually say I truly loved. It’s a meticulously crafted drama/horror hybrid that’s a scorching indictment on white academia’s dehumanization of Black people, while claiming infallibility due to their “inclusive” policies. Hall and Renee completely own the screen with their uniquely harrowing performances which play off of one another beautifully. It’s a quiet, albeit gut-wrenching melding of two genres and a truly fabulous debut for Mariama Diallo, and I can’t wait to see what else she has up her sleeve.
In select theaters and streaming on Prime Video March 18th, 2022.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Monday, March 14th, Screening @ 2:30 pm CT, ZACH Theatre
*Wednesday, March 16th, Online Screening @ 9:00 am CT
*Wednesday, March 16th, Screening @ 5:15 9m CT, Stateside Theatre
*Saturday, March 19th, Screening @ 9:15 pm CT, Alamo Lamar B
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.