Master unevenly mixes social commentary with the supernatural

click to enlarge Master unevenly mixes social commentary with the supernatural
There are more academic horrors than failing grades in Master.

Even the most elite, old-fashioned colleges and universities are seemingly more diverse than Ancaster College, the fictional setting of writer-director Mariama Diallo's debut feature Master. When freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) shows up at Ancaster, it initially looks like she may be the only Black student on campus. The same goes for English professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), who's surrounded almost entirely by white faces among the faculty. According to Jasmine's research, Ancaster didn't enroll a single Black student until the 1960s (at least a century later than some prestigious Ivy League-style institutions), and that student died on campus under mysterious circumstances.

So the environment at Ancaster for students and teachers of color is already defined by isolation and barely concealed hostility, and that's before taking into account the supposed curse of a witch who was killed on what would become school grounds in the 1600s. There's also an Amish-like cult in the surrounding area, whose members live as if it's still the 17th century and occasionally show up on the edge of campus to add some extra creepy atmosphere. Master piles on the obstacles and trauma for its dual main characters, as if ingrained institutional racism weren't bad enough. Jasmine gets the unlucky assignment of staying in the dorm room where that Black student died in the 1960s and where legend has it that the witch, Margaret Millett, finds her victims.

Jasmine starts experiencing various standard horror-movie problems, including strange dreams and apparitions that may or may not be there. Gail, who has become Ancaster's first Black house master (a sort of combination dorm monitor and faculty adviser), has some of the same experiences in her new home, which is adjacent to Jasmine's dorm. In the meantime, they both have to navigate condescension and microaggressions on a daily basis just to get through their classes and activities.

Diallo contrasts Jasmine and Gail with professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), an outspoken Black woman who seems more secure and confident in her position challenging white authority than Gail does, even though Gail is the one with tenure. Master raises plenty of relevant points about race and privilege in academia, but it can't successfully connect those points to the vaguely defined supernatural elements, which never rise above a collection of horror cliches. Master is filled with red herrings and narrative dead ends, including multiple major plot points that are quickly dropped and never mentioned again. Jasmine's roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder) seems central to the story and has her own personal problems to contend with, only to suddenly disappear from the movie with her subplot left hanging.

Significant elements of the main characters' backgrounds are also left unexplored, and while Hall and Renee give strong performances, both Gail and Jasmine remain underdeveloped. Ancaster is meant to be a stand-in for a range of upscale institutions, but there's so little specificity to it that it feels generic, like an avatar for Diallo's social commentary rather than a real place. The barbed takedown of campus culture was handled more effectively in recent satires like Justin Simien's Dear White People and the Netflix series The Chair, and the combination with horror worked better in Sophia Takal's underrated 2019 Black Christmas remake.

Still, it's admirable that Diallo has too many ideas to balance rather than not enough, and Master remains ambitious all the way through its abrupt but striking ending. It makes such a clear case for the horrors of racism at every level of American society that the more mundane horrors of ghosts and witches seem completely superfluous. ♦

Rated R
Directed by Mariama Diallo
Starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray
Streaming on Amazon Prime starting March 18

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