This review was originally published in conjunction with Master’s debut screenings at the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival. It has been updated, reformatted, and republished for the film’s streaming release on Amazon Video.
Allegorical horror has become a popular genre with filmmakers from marginalized groups, and it’s easy to understand why: Horror stories can make difficult topics more approachable, and they find funding and audiences more easily than just about any other genre right now. Emotionally and stylistically, they’re also a perfect canvas for expressing rage and fear. But they’re difficult to get right tonally. If the horror imagery is linked too neatly to the themes, they can come off as rigid and didactic. If the association is too loose, the horror elements can end up looking like grisly set-dressing on a social-issue drama.
Master, the arresting debut feature from writer-director Mariama Diallo, walks this line with confidence, if not quite precision. It’s a tale of racism and exclusion at an Ivy League college, but it’s also a story about a good old-fashioned New England witch haunting. The two strands are tightly intertwined and suggestive of each other, but Diallo makes the connection between them opaque, sometimes to frustrating degrees. The tense, unsettling mood is consistent through every minute of the film. The hauntings are scary, but the microaggressions and twisted racial politics that turn every conversation into a minefield are scarier still.
Master follows two Black women navigating a new academic year at the fictional Ancaster College. Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a wide-eyed freshman student from faraway Tacoma, shy and coltish in her natural hair and plain clothes. Gail (Regina Hall) is an established faculty member who has just been appointed as the college’s first Black “Master” — the institution’s antiquated term for a head of house, and a word heavy with uncomfortable echoes.
Those echoes can be heard everywhere on Ancaster’s genteel, historic campus. Gail moves with pride into her new digs, a beautiful red-brick lodge, but she does so alone, and finds the drafty house filled with reminders of Black servitude and subjugation. Jasmine, meanwhile, moves into a room that campus legends claim is haunted. A student died in the room decades ago, a death linked to a “curse” placed on the school by Margaret Millett, a woman who was hanged for witchcraft on the site centuries earlier. It’s said that Millett’s ghost shows itself to one freshman every year, and at the moment of her own death at 3:33 a.m., takes the student with her to hell.
Jasmine and Gail both start to see vague but sinister omens: maggots oozing from a rip in a painting, the face of some college grandee in another portrait distorting into a cadaverous scream. These moments of classic horror imagery are chilling and repulsive. But Diallo and cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby glide past these visions, rather than jolting audiences with jump scares. The characters, puzzled and unnerved, slide back into the routine of campus life, but the unease comes with them. Master moves like a cat, stealthy and purposeful, with an even gait. It’s an impressive feat of control from a first-time director.
The point is that feelings of disquiet, alienation, and dread are pervasive for these women in even the most ordinary encounters, as they try to find a place for themselves within a bastion of white supremacy. Much like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Diallo’s scalpel-sharp screenplay constructs scene after fraught scene of coded racial friction, alive to the many different ways that racism can poison the well — blatant or subtle, malevolent or condescending, inter- or intra-racial. Fraternity bros scream the N-word in aggressive appropriation as they sing along to a rap song at a party. A Black canteen server ingratiates herself to the white students, but regards Jasmine with hostility. Celebrating Gail’s promotion, the white professors ask if they should call her “Barack” now. White students find a casual facility with a Black professor’s critical race theory reading of The Scarlet Letter, while Jasmine challenges it and gets marked down.
That professor, Liv (Amber Gray), becomes an increasingly important figure as Master’s story broadens and deepens, though she remains strangely ambiguous. She’s a friend and comrade-in-arms to Gail, and she’s fighting for tenure. Jasmine files a complaint against Liv over the failing grade, which complicates Gail’s position as she tries to advocate for her friend and improve the school’s dismal record for diversity. Somehow, the system has turned the three women against each other, or at least enmeshed their fates in a sticky ethical web, when they were only asking for seats at the table. Master is relentlessly on point in its attacks on white privilege, but it’s justified in that targeting. And Diallo’s sophistication and sangfroid as a filmmaker, coupled with her canny use of genre, prevent the film from turning into a diatribe.
Within the film’s surprisingly complex setup, the outright horror of the witch haunting is the bluntest instrument. It’s used to ratchet up the sense of danger as Jasmine burrows deeper into hostile territory, is ostracized by her classmates, and researches the earlier student death in her room. Honestly, the haunting doesn’t always mesh with the real social horrors she faces. But it does allow Hornsby to frame some strikingly creepy shots, breaking up her austere, autumnal compositions with walls of red and slashes of black, embedded in Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s ominous, droning score. Elsewhere, Diallo and Hornsby create layered, metaphorical images that are subtler but no less lingering, like the shadow of a janitor mopping the floor behind Gail and Jasmine as they delicately discuss her complaint against Liv. These Black women are still cleaning up the mess, generations after the maid whose memory haunts Gail’s house.
As Jasmine, Zoe Renee gives Master its naked emotional center. But its anchor is the terrific Regina Hall, as quietly magnetic here as she was in the underseen Support the Girls. With Amber Gray acting as a brittle and unpredictable foil, Hall commands the film. Her steadying presence helps Diallo in her brave choice to complicate rather than resolve her themes during a fascinating, surprising final act.
Is Diallo just using horror as a Trojan horse for the social drama that really preoccupies her? Perhaps, although Master’s creeping, wintry style suggests she has a real affinity for the genre at its most chilling and Kubrickian. And while the haunting is never explicitly linked to the college’s grotesque enshrinement of privilege and bigotry, they inspire similar dread. Both, after all, are about history reaching into the present and pulling people back into darkness.
Master is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.