Runtime: 98 minutes
Directors: Mariama Diallo
Writers: Mariama Diallo
Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray, Julia Nightingale, Ella Hunt
By Tom Moore
Mariama Diallo’s feature directorial debut, “Master”(2022), is a psychological horror trek through systemic racism in American education that presents an enticing and engaging atmosphere.
As the film’s two central black women arrive at the fictional college campus of Ancaster College, freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) and Professor Gail (Regina Hall) who recently became the college’s first black master, there’s a certain vibe that Diallo creates that’s instantly unsettling. Although the atmosphere is relatively positive for both women, the predominately white presence makes them visually feel like outcasts and the early moments of how they’re treated give off signs that they aren’t exactly welcomed in their respective positions.
Even though Gail has earned her position as a master, she tends to be treated like a tool for other people’s goals and a foreign entity within this academic community. As for Jasmine, she struggles to make strong connections with fellow classmates and is quickly turned into an outcast since she’s placed in a dorm supposedly haunted by a witch. Diallo crafts some chilling atmospheric scares surrounding this supposed witch haunting Jasmine and possibly Gail throughout their time at Ancaster and it slowly builds towards a horrifying confrontation.
“Master” isn’t a jump scare heavy horror experience. Rather, it seeks to send Jasmine, Gail, and viewers into a psychological downward spiral that drives them to question reality. With each mind-bending and terrifying new vision Jasmine and Gail have, it constantly feels like something is trying to push them out and make them think there’s no escape. This dark presence feels like its growing throughout and slowly tightening its grip on Jasmine making for some disturbing turns and horrifying conclusions. However, even though this witch is made to be a prevailing force in driving Jasmine and Gail to the brink of their sanity, it constantly feels like there’s a more earthbound force really seeking to push them out.
Personally, the choice Diallo makes in making the true source of Jasmine and Gail’s distortion of reality ambiguous is one of “Master’s” strongest aspects. For the most part, it can simply seem like Jasmine and Gail are being terrorized by an ancient supernatural force, but Diallo never lets you forget about what they face in the real world. Given how Gail is used by other colleagues for their own agenda and Jasmine continually faces scrutiny and gaslighting by those around her, especially when she arrives, you can’t help but feel like there’s a greater conspiracy in the works.
Throughout the film, Diallo excellently builds this uncomforting reality about college life and the education system that perpetuates racial discrimination. From how toxic frat mentality makes Jasmine a pariah and gaslights her beliefs about the witch to Gail’s position being questioned as she supports another black professor, Liv (Amber Gray), receiving tenure, both these women are made to feel like they don’t belong, and it makes you wonder if the larger white presence is trying to push them out. Jasmine’s experience certainly feels like someone is hazing her and driving her to the unthinkable edge and there is this cult-like presence seen in Ancaster that promotes this mob mentality that’s constantly breathing down Jasmine and Gail’s neck.
No matter where they are in Ancaster, everyone’s eyes feel glued to Jasmine and Gail creating this eerie atmosphere that makes you think deeper about what they’re going through. Admittedly, the film can lose focus as it tries to add in new elements to their experiences that either feel unnecessary or add in new questions that don’t have distinct answers. Jasmine’s end is absolutely gut-wrenching and tragic, but it does feel like other characters, mainly the presence of another black student, don’t get utilized enough to create a wider reaction to her story. Also, what the film tries to throw in about Liv at the end does add some interesting shock value but doesn’t have a defined answer to it and is a moment where the film’s sense of ambiguity backfires.
However, “Master” manages to still leave a strong impact on viewers through Gail’s story. Her conclusion delivers some vibes of Chris’ experience in “Get Out” as she has this haunting realization about the systemic racism in her profession and delivers this emotional and raw monologue that’s excellently delivered by Hall, who really gives a phenomenal performance here. Her story acts as a symbol of change that really hits you in the final moment and while it may not be that satisfyingly shocking ending most would expect in a horror film, it’s satisfyingly meaningful with how fitting it is for her character.
With “Master”, Diallo crafts a great mix of psychological terror and grounded themes that come together to create a haunting portrayal of racial discrimination that features one of Hall’s best performances and some very impressive world-building.