In Master, written and directed by Mariama Diallo and showing at SXSW 2022, the horrors of the past combine with present-day horror to gyrate into a memorable thriller with twists. Starring Regina Hall as Professor Gail Bishop, Zoe Renee as freshman Jasmine Moore, and Amber Gray as Professor Liv Beckman, Diallo presents three women of color. Each must make her divergent way to success at an elite New England university.
Three Women of Color at an Elite University
Jasmine arrives on campus welcomed by a student who intimates that she got “the room.” Later Jasmine discovers a legend about a woman hanged as a witch – and that the university site is a Salem-era gallows hill.
Allegedly, the witch pushed a woman out the window. The woman slept in Jasmine’s dorm room. In macabre fashion, a picture of the “witch” adorns a library wall – along with other white, Puritan, university ancestors and donors’ portraits. For whatever reason, the university views the woman as a martyr, not a witch.
Spooked by the legend, Jasmine feels Increasingly uncomfortable, suffering increasingly realistic and dark nightmares. Truth and imagination blur. Her roommate and friends remain coolly distant and provide no help making her feel accepted or at home.
The Dean of Students Confronts a History of Racism
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop enjoys the privilege of her position as “Master,” the dean of students. Though warmly welcomed, she increasingly wigs out in her beautiful but dark and foreboding residence. Cleaning out storage areas, she discovers the house’s history of servitude and slavery in pictures left in shoe boxes. Yes, her exalted position as a black woman dean is an achievement to be lauded.
But her confidence deflates as she pores over the artifacts she finds. The photos carry the stench of the racism and servile abuse that existed in the house at one time. Though she has achieved a high position, Gail must face the unpleasantness that every Black person in the nation experiences when confronting racism, whether overt or undercurrents, subtexts, tropes. Even the university’s attempt to correct the tropes remains insincere.
Institutional Racism at an Elite University
It’s all an uncool mess, Diallo neatly points out, especially with the portrayal of campus life and classes. Sadly, the university that hired Gail to showcase its diversity and inclusiveness remains a hypocritical mess. Gail feels its oppression in her reactions to the pictures. And weird noises and forceful winds blowing open upstairs windows stoke her fears. After she visits her colleague Liv Beckman for comfort and unity, the film twists their racial unity into a psychological swamp.
The film expansively shifts among the lives of the three women on the campus. Disagreeing with Professor Beckman that The Scarlett Letter contains great racial bias, Jasmine receives an F on a paper expressing her views, a grade that Beckman thinks Jasmine as a “quota Black” deserves. Jasmine received A’s in high school, graduated as valedictorian, and earned her way to university. Asking other students their grades, Jasmine determines that Beckman targeted her. Jasmine files a complaint letter suggesting Beckman lacks competence.
Two “Sistahs” Strangely at Odds
Ironically, Beckman represents as a black woman. So Jasmine’s accusation appears contradictory and weird, as does Beckman singling out a “sister” like Jasmine as unfit for the university.
The complexity deepens when colleagues challenge Beckman’s receiving tenure because she hasn’t published. Caught between supporting her “sister” and being objective, Gail brings up the letter of complaint by Jasmine against Beckman. Either Liv will have to leave or make another arrangement.
Diallo then ratchets up the vile recent history of racial bias on campus. Researches the school, Jasmine discovers another death. A black girl was lynched. Was this the work of the witch, a ghoul? Or did the murderer or murderers have white faces?
Ratcheting up the Terror
Diallo unveils the terrors on the campus through lighting, camera angles, pacing, atmospheric music and interesting cinematography. Jasmine’s discoveries about the lynching become the turning point when the racism on the campus becomes overt. Beckman, Zoe and Gail attempt to deal with it and help each other, but the help comes too late.
The second half of the film stuns. At one point, I thought Diallo’s work sophomoric. I especially considered this as she toyed with the characters’ imaginations, nightmare and reality without full delineation of each of the characters’ worlds. However, that opaqueness turns out to be vital to the mystery, horror and shock. When brutality arrives, it devastates, traumatizes.
Clearly, that was Diallo’s point. Allowing others to experience that shock puts the audience in the shoes of the abused, those who experience racism’s terror on a visceral, daily level.
Institutional Racism Haunts the Culture Like a Terrorizing Ghost
Once the terror begins, the characters can’t live normal lives. Politics and privilege, discrimination and institutional racism breathe everywhere in the culture. One of Diallo’s themes is that the ghosts of slavery will haunt forever the consciousness of black people. Pretending these ghosts don’t exist makes the situation worse. Gail has nowhere to run or hide. She learns racism is everywhere – and especially where she’s the hired “Master.” In a final twist, what Beckman achieves with her tenure becomes a travesty considering her background.
Diallo’s twists create a horror greater than ghosts and legends in Master. But the elite university still remains. And that may be the greatest horror of all.
See Master, an excellent, memorable thriller, on Amazon beginning 18 March.