The year after I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, its chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was shut down because a student leaked a video of them performing a racist chant. If you’re wondering, trust me, it takes a lot to shut down a frat in Oklahoma—let alone actually do something to racists besides elect them to public office—so it’s probably even worse than you think. Naturally, though, that kind of thing isn’t quarantined to evil little bastards at the backwards state schools of the modern south. It’s just where it remains most visible. But the legacy of that kind of racism forms the economic and ideological foundation of some of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning, ranging from Georgetown to Harvard to the University of Virginia to Yale. The specter of slavery haunts the country, and Master isn’t here for an exorcism. Instead, coming out of HBO’s excellent Random Acts of Flyness, writer/director Mariama Diallo makes her debut with a scattershot yet damning nightmare.
Her horror is one of symbols, situations and environments. The campus of Ancaster, a fancy-pants New England university, welcomes Black women with locked doors, blaring alarms and white whispers. It doesn’t matter if you’re Gail Bishop (Regina Hall, fantastic as always), a newly appointed Master AKA dean breaking that particular office’s color barrier, or Jasmine (Zoe Renee, who’s been excellent since Jinn), seemingly the only non-white student in the incoming freshman class. Wide-eyed type-A Jasmine and her heavy-browed indie roommate live in one of the haunted rooms making up seemingly every college campus; Gail’s new faculty digs are similarly pockmarked by the past. The problem is that these buildings have been around for a couple hundred years and the school mascot is a witch, so maybe everyone should be on the lookout for the supernatural. But it’s not ghosts that torment Jasmine and Gail.
Diallo’s chapter-based descent into the Hell of American history, each circle moving past microaggressions and into more direct displays of hate, shows warring yet intrinsically linked experiences. Jasmine is cold-shouldered by Black cafeteria employees, surrounded by hard-R sing-along partygoers, and academically undermined by her Black literature professor (Amber Gray). Gail navigates tenure committees, portrait sittings and other arenas of prickly professionalism—all punctuated by signs of rot. In both stories, Diallo doesn’t skimp on the visual horror language, hitting the classics (“What’s under the bed?” “Why are there bugs?” “That painting’s weird.”) with straightforward framing and potent, simple camera moves that all but ask us to yell at the screen. Some other familiar elements, like ringing servant bells, aren’t as effective. The desire to hit a variety of senses mirrors the story’s aim to approach its central metaphor in multiple, complex ways—but both intentions need more time and focus in order to be more than elemental namechecks.
We understand the college’s exploitative and hateful legacy in a broad, colonialist sense thanks to its lily-white (and ultra-rich) student body, and in specific, tangible terms thanks to faded photos and bottom-shelved mammy ceramics. Diallo attempts to link these, especially as Jasmine faces more explicitly violent racism as the film goes on and as she gets deeper into the school year, through an embodied monster that doesn’t always work. The dreamlike world that it inhabits, justified by Jasmine’s sleepwalking habit, is far more unnerving because it doesn’t externalize the danger. Rather, it simply highlights how inherently spooky and unwelcoming campuses can be in the first place to Black people. (Note to colleges: Red-lit hallways, overly mirrored bathrooms and constant tours of leering WASPs are bad amenities.)
These sequences also have a bit of nasty humor to keep Master’s deployment of Dementor-like ghouls from seeming too on-the-nose as personified discrimination. One of the movie’s best moments comes when a piece of racist intimidation is cynically, hilariously undercut by a university diversity commercial. It’s in these moments that Diallo shows off her abilities with Flyness’ weaponized uncanniness. But as Master’s tone becomes more complex, so do its results. Diallo undoubtedly strikes at potent topics with skill and sets her collaborators up for success—Hall goes on a rampage, her administrative warmth exploding into an inferno—but its storylines and characters don’t convincingly coalesce. A third act tumbles to its bold conclusion, ending with a powerful ambiguity representative of the horror as a whole: Resonant, but so varied in its ambitions that it’s easy to get lost in its shadows.
Director: Mariama Diallo
Writers: Mariama Diallo
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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