Director Mariama Diallo is no stranger to the horror genre centering the societal anguish of Black women in unsafe or even spooky spaces—and while her first feature film, Master, does just that, it also fell a little flat.
While we’ve previously seen Diallo explore this territory in her 2018 short film, Hair Wolf, which follows a Black hair salon that has been hijacked by a mysterious monster (aka white woman) who is intent on draining the heart and soul of Black culture, Master takes a slightly different, yet familiar route.
The film, which debuted on Amazon on March 18, is a chilly psychological thriller that hits too close to home for Black people who know the problems faced by the centered characters all too well—fighting for survival in a world that’s rigged against them. Master transports viewers to the illustrious grounds of a fictitious Ivy League college called Ancaster. Set in New England, cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby crafts an aesthetic that emphasizes the spook factor hanging from an environment comprised of old trees, red-brick buildings, and forceful, foreboding wind. It follows three Black women—Gail (played by Regina Hall), Jasmine (played by Zoe Renee) and Liv (played by Amber Gray)—who are intertwined in the battle to assimilate into the mostly-white, elite institution.
Renee’s Jasmine is the idealistic freshman who doesn’t have to wait too long after her arrival before she discovers that her dorm room has been cursed by the ghost of a former Black student who was found dead by suicide in the sixties. Arguably the most affecting tale of the three, Jasmine’s ability to thrive at Ancaster is thwarted by both the hostile energy in her home created by its history and her nasty white roommate, Amelia.
Hall’s Gail has been appointed as the first-ever Black headmaster at the college and is forced to contend with some myths that have permeated the school’s atmosphere, the most prevalent one being that wary students believe the university is gripped by the ghostly presence of Margaret Millett, a woman presumed to be a witch who was hanged for her sins near the school grounds. In her historic and highly influential new role, Gail glazes over a few major red flags that might drive someone else to find a new job—including the discovery that her stately home has become infested with maggots.
Then we have Gray’s Liv, the biracial English professor who must actively refute the assumption that she’s a white woman pretending to be Black. Forced to lean more into whichever slot suits her purpose in the moment, Liv is painfully aware of her racial ambiguity and the struggles her competing identities create.
Watching Master felt like an uncensored reflection of what life is really like for women who look like me. As a Black woman, I know what it feels like to constantly and cautiously navigate the maze of high expectations borne from our white peers. That minefield can chip away at our functionality and eventually our sanity until we are broken down beyond repair.
Diallo takes a cue from the likes of Jordan Peele, whose first film Get Out brilliantly expanded and reimagined the horror genre. In both Peele’s first film and second, Us, he’s adept at depicting how jarringly embedded racism is in basically everything and its subtle way of taking on various forms of abuse. In Diallo’s work, the interactions of each of these women takes viewers on a Peele-esque rollercoaster ride that comes to a soft landing. Master intricately weaves in the nagging microagressions that Diallo drew from in her real-life experience attending Yale as a Black freshman. Diallo, like Hall’s Gail, was also assigned a “master,” a former professor who happened to be a white man, during her Yale tenure. Some time after graduation, the budding filmmaker bumped into her old mentor in New York City and was unsettled by her initial decision to address him with the academic title that has since been discontinued by her alma mater. That fateful encounter laid the foundation for Master.
While it was a solid effort by a young storyteller, Master fumbles a bit with rushed scenes that are set up to be explosive, but ultimately whimper away without much resolve. We’re invested in Jasmine’s plight after witnessing her run-ins with howling creatures of the night and other not so subtle signs that she’s being chased, but we never find out who or what is chasing her. And Liv’s entire biracial plot-point, which succeeds in pointing out the more layered aspects of race and colorism, could’ve been explored on a much deeper level rather than simply reiterating much of what we already know about the biracial experience.
As for Gail, her final straw comes a little too late for comfort; we watch her helplessly coping throughout the film and are left to wonder what it’s going to take to get her to bail before the worst happens. Her grieving at the end of the movie for what’s been lost and what will never be doesn’t elicit much empathy, after her uncanny tolerance for so much.
Viewers get the gist of how these three Black women are constantly being haunted by the ghosts of the past and the chaos of the present, but it feels like we’re not being exposed to anything new beyond the main bullet points we’re accustomed to seeing in movies of this kind. Diallo’s messaging ultimately doesn’t feel as fresh and boundary-breaking as it could, which unfortunately dilutes the full effect. The build-up is intense and constant, but Master doesn’t deliver that much-needed gut punch at the end.