‘Master’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Regina Hall stars in Mariama Diallo’s debut feature about a trio of Black women surviving their fall semester at a prestigious, historically white college.

Ancaster College, the picturesque setting of Mariama Diallo’s debut feature Master, boasts an impressive number of white alumni. The fictional alma mater has educated an army of senators and two presidents — they could have had a third, but they rejected him, forcing that future head of state to settle for Harvard. The school’s verdant grounds are punctiliously maintained by a near invisible staff, and its halls vibrate with history. Most of the student body and faculty are white, but occasionally a Black person joins the institution, though they, of course, never quite find their footing.

The last few years have affirmed that the Black American experience is well-suited to the conventions of horror storytelling. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out inspired a renaissance and re-appreciation: Horror became the preferred lens for investigating the country’s grotesque fascination with and treatment of its Black citizens. Diallo’s movie, a wry slice of horror that follows three Black women trying to call a tony college home, is an assured addition to this recent tradition.


The Bottom Line

Compellingly bold, if not always satisfying.

Release Date: Tuesday, March 18 (Amazon)
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director-screenwriter: Mariama Diallo

1 hour 31 minutes

Master opens at the beginning of Ancaster College’s fall semester. The school is brimming with the youthful energy of a new academic year, and it’s within this context that we meet Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an exuberant freshman and one of the college’s few Black students. She confidently shuffles around campus in those early days. Nothing can burst the bubble of this young Black suburbanite from Washington state — not even the inconvenient fact that her room, number 302, is haunted.

The entire institution, in fact, is cursed. Jasmine learns about Margaret Millett, a witch who died centuries ago near campus and haunts the area, from her mostly white classmates. They giddily divulge details of the tale over casual dorm room hangs or during raucous fraternity parties. Diallo, whose short film Hair Wolf won a Jury Award at Sundance in 2018, has proven herself to be an adept architect of taut, witty scenes, and she continues to flex that skill in Master. Jasmine’s collegiate experiences — the incompatible friendship, the booze-heavy parties and contrived seminar discussions — are rendered with the precision of someone attuned to the dread and latent horror of these situations. Jasmine struggles to navigate the blunt manner in which her classmates exercise their power and privilege; their audacity perturbs her more than the rumors of the witch who marks one student to die every year.

In a different sphere of campus are two other Black women trying to figure out their place: Gail Bishop, the school’s first Black “Master,” or dean of students, and Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a literature professor up for tenure. As part of her new role, Gail moves into a near palatial home, furnished with gilded antiques and reminders of the school’s racist history. Liv, on the other hand, struggles to initiate a campus diversity project and to connect with Jasmine, whom she teaches. In their off hours, the two women support each other — convening for gossip sessions and going for long runs through the campus’ winding, deserted woods. Their friendship resembles those born out of necessity and mutual recognition of loneliness.

Master is organized by chapters, each introduced with a title card of text that resurfaces in dialogue later. These tightly conceived vignettes form a fascinating study of the racist undercurrents pulsating through institutions. They also offer Diallo and DP Charlotte Hornsby room to experiment within the genre: A desaturated, almost muted visual language coupled with a liberal use of slow tracking shots add to a sense of relative unease. Some scenes stay with you — like one of Jasmine surrounded by a group of white boys rapping along to a song, their angular faces monstrously contorting as they become emboldened enough to yell “n—er”; or another when Gail celebrates her new position with her peers, their shrill laughs teetering on the delicate line between enthusiasm and mocking.

Despite the strength of these moments, however, Master — rich with cutting jokes akin to the ones in Wolf Hair or even segments Diallo wrote for Terence Nance’s HBO comedy Random Acts of Flyness — doesn’t always satisfyingly cohere. The plot takes peculiar paths as it juggles the perspectives of the three women, whose experiences vary widely. Jasmine begins to have intense nightmares, which further isolates her from her classmates and makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Gail’s efforts to properly settle into her home becomes a maddening exercise — strange sounds ring throughout the residence and maggots infest every crevice. Liv’s greatest stressor remains whether or not the school will grant her tenure despite her “thin” publishing history.

With all these plotlines, the film can sometimes feel like an amalgamation of competing narrative threads. Intriguing moments, like Jasmine not receiving the same enthusiastic greeting as the white students from the dining staff, promise revelations that never come. Character development loses out as a result of the ambitious storytelling; save for Liv, the other women feel unintentionally mysterious. It’s curious, then, that figures like Jasmine’s white roommate Amelia (Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Talia Ryder) are given more heft than warranted.

As Jasmine, Gail and Liv plod through the fall semester, the campus’ strangeness becomes more noticeable. Racist incidents occur, like someone carving the word “LEAVE” onto Jasmine’s door and attaching a noose to the unsavory note. Gail, who emerges as the film’s central character, is unsettled by these instances, and tries her best to crack the mystery. But she’s dealing with her own issues, too — mainly trying to make sure that a grade dispute Jasmine initiated against Liv doesn’t ruin the latter’s chance at tenure. Master often bursts with an exciting tension as the women struggle to make sense of what is happening to them.

The film’s final moments make good on that tension, closing out a third act with several surprising twists. Despite its hiccups and frustrations, Master is inventive in finding fresh ways to package familiar observations about American racism; even the most clichéd sentiments are delivered with a nudge and a wink. As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but admire, above all else, Diallo’s boldness. I’m already looking forward to her next project.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S.Dramatic Competition)
Distributor: Amazon
Production companies: Amazon, Big Indie Pictures
Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director-screenwriter: Mariama Diallo
Producers: Joshua Astrachan, Brad Becker-Parton, Andrea Roa
Executive producers: Regina Hall, Mariama Diallo, Sophia Lin, Terence Nance
Director of photography: Charlotte Hornsby
Production designer: Tommy Love, Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editors: Jennifer Lee, Maya Maffioli
Music: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
Casting director: Jessica Daniels, Daniel Frankel

1 hour 31 minutes