This review of “Master” was first published on Jan. 21, 2022, following its premiere at Sundance.
Writer-director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature “Master” doesn’t just blur the lines between the horror genre and institutionalized racism; it convincingly argues that there’s no meaningful difference.
If ghost stories are all about people forced to live with a traumatic past, then surely every inch of America is haunted. Racism isn’t a specter hiding in our attic; it’s a malevolent force that infects every surface in the country, and it seems to flourish the most in monuments to white power.
“Master” tells the story of two women at Ancaster College, a fictional institute of higher learning that’s as old as the United States itself. Regina Hall stars as Gail Bishop, the first woman of color to become the “master” of a residence hall, but her home is haunted by ghosts of previous women of color who lived in the same house, centuries ago, and had no such power.
Gail hears their bell ring at all hours of the day. Tucked into the back corner of a cupboard is a racist figurine. Maggots feast their way through her school portrait. It may be her home, but she is not welcome.
Zoe Renee (“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase”) co-stars as Jasmin Moore, a first-year student who drew the short straw and now resides in a dorm room that’s allegedly haunted. Former students, in particular Black women, met horrible ends in that dorm, and it is said that every year the ghost of a witch — lynched centuries ago on the grounds of the school — selects one more student to drive into madness and, worse, serious self-harm.
Jasmin’s first semester is a nightmare, and not just because she’s fallen prey to vivid dreams about persecution and supernatural influence. Her every interaction on campus, as one of only a handful of people of color in the student body, is tainted by racist assumptions, double standards, airs of superiority and outright hostility.
In most movies, underhanded acts of cruelty and disturbing vestiges of a horrific past would suggest an eldritch force, a destabilization of personal security caused by an unholy outside presence. “Master” toys with this possibility, and leaves much of the film’s storyline open to at least some interpretation, but ultimately asserts instead that this clearly horrifying first-act horror-movie setup is everyday life for people of color in a traditionally white, institutionally racist system. No ghosts are necessary, whether they’re real in this movie or not.
That is, no pun needed, a haunting observation, and “Master” gets a lot of mileage out of the metatextual parallel. It’s not a winking motion picture. The only commentary it makes directly about literature refers to “The Scarlet Letter,” not supernatural thrillers. Charlotte Hornsby’s eerie cinematography lingers in discomforting spaces, unwelcoming buildings, elite social circles with questionable standards, and Diallo’s characters have no plot-oriented goals to distract them from their surroundings. They just want to live comfortably, have positive connections and do their work.
They’re so fundamentally reasonable that every roadblock in their way, regardless of size, is existentially cruel. Regina Hall is superb, which comes as no surprise, and Zoe Renee’s gradual descent into an anxious bundle of nerves is grippingly real and deeply tragic.
One is reminded very quickly of Sophia Takal’s smart, modern, inventive remake of “Black Christmas,” which likewise took place at an institute for higher learning plagued by unexamined histories of oppression, whose virulent history was actively defended by a disturbed new generation of backwards-thinkers. But whereas Takal’s film argued that — if only in the pulpiest possible universe, if only with a crossbow — the evils of the past could be destroyed, “Master” has no such optimism, and very little expectation that the past will ever be reckoned with, let alone met with some semblance of justice.
“Master” is a sobering, dour motion picture, but that’s no critique. It finds very little to be happy about, and who can blame it? By the time the credits roll, the film’s only possible conclusion has been reached; it’s satisfying, but fittingly, it denies the audience any true sense of catharsis. Problems have not been solved. Every attempt to address them has been undermined. But if nothing else, maybe people will no longer play their petty, entitled, ignorant games.
“Master” premieres globally on Prime Video March 18.