SXSW Review – Master
As a Caucasian woman of European descent, I cannot bring my own experiences into this review. Any insight into the topic of racism is one that I can only talk about as an observer and someone who is firmly against it. I would encourage any reader of this review to seek out other critics from diverse backgrounds than myself because the insights and feelings about the film will be different.
Writer and director Mariama Diallo brought her own experiences as an undergrad at Yale to her first feature film, Master (2022). She struggled with having to call the head of houses at Yale “Master.” With her Master being an older white man, she realized how quickly she normalized the assimilation into this college society. Calling a white man Master while being a young African American woman did not resonate with her as something wrong; it was just a normal thing that happened at school.
The setting of Master is the fictional New England college of Ancaster. From its stately buildings, small campus, and how the characters speak about it, it is an elite school that few students receive an acceptance. There are Masters of different houses within the college, and Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has just become the first African American Master of the Belleville House. Along with becoming a Master is entry to living in a large house on campus, something Gail finds attractive and worth the work she put in to achieve Master. What lies in that house is the history of white men in influential roles and the black women who worked as staff in the houses. A different perspective is also a part of Master. Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is an incoming freshman from Washington. She enters the campus gleefully and full of promise, but what she encounters as one of the only African American students at this college is unexpected to her but not so unexpected by those already there. Overshadowing the stories of these two women is the hanging of a witch and the myth that she haunts the same room that Jasmine occupies with her roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder), driving the occupants to their deaths.
Master is laden with subtle hints and symbolism as it drives to its conclusion. The color red is used in the lighting of so much of Jasmine’s dorm, and it follows her conveying that she is constantly in danger, even representing death or blood. One of the most noticeable things about Jasmine, in the beginning, is that she arrives with her natural hair, and after meeting her roommate and her friends, she decides to straighten her hair to fit in better. Juxtaposed with Jasmine is Gail’s natural, short hair and professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) having hers in braids. Liv and Gail have decided not to conform to looking like the people around them, but the film doesn’t address whether they have in the past.
There are microaggressions presented throughout Master towards Gail and Jasmine; some are immediately recognized, others are not. It is the ignorance of those around them that screams for accountability. Gail has essentially embraced the culture of Ancaster and all that it stands for. She is complacent to a point, but she begins to realize the effect that this school has had on her and is currently having on Jasmine. It has become a badge of honor to Gail that she survived being a minority at Ancaster and has risen through the ranks to become Master. She wants the same for Jasmine even though Gail recognizes that she is struggling.
Not enough could be said about the performances of Regina Hall and Zoe Renee. They are both at the top of their game, but Renee is able to take the focus away from Hall because of her brilliant take as Jasmine. Renee makes it look easy to go from a bright-eyed student to one still grasping at hope in the face of multiple attacks.
Being a freshman in college, especially being away from home, is stressful enough on its own. For Jasmine, there is pressure from herself, her fellow students, and Gail and Liv. The impact of Jasmine coming to Ancaster is not accepted by her. She is a top student; she never fails. Her undoing is repeated assaults on her well-being, whether she realized them or not. Add in a scary witch ghost, and the cracks in her façade of “I’m doing okay” begin to show. The ignorance of those around Jasmine is more terrifying than anything that a ghost could do to her. Gail realizes that after spending her adult life trying to fit in and succeed, Ancaster hasn’t given her much back that holds any value outside of the campus.
Building on her collegiate experience and fictionalizing it while also adding elements to bend it into the horror genre, Diallo has sedimented herself into being a visionary director and writer. There will be comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and the similarities are there, especially with bending the topic of racism into horror. However, Diallo kept her subject matter grounded in reality more than Peele, and because of this, it is more frightening. Master is a horrifying film on multiple levels, and the story has endings for its characters that will need to be discussed after the film ends. Diallo crafted a script that doesn’t lay everything on the table for you but leaves some up for interpretation, some of which may depend on your own experiences. Master is a phenomenal, thought-provoking horror film with outstanding, complex performances by its actors. Master should be as popular as Get Out, and Mariama Diallo’s film career will be watched in earnest with anticipation of her next project.