First-time filmmaker Mariama Diallo combines social commentary and surrealist horror in Master, a film that earns most of its goodwill through yet another riveting performance from Regina Hall. She is Gail Bishop, newly installed as the “master” of a residence hall at Harvard, a long-standing tradition where a member of faculty serves as a sort of point-person for the community. That she’s a Black woman taking up a mantle with such a dated name is not lost on Gail—or us. But it’s nevertheless an honor, and she does her best to start the role in good spirits.
One of her closest allies on campus is Liv (Amber Gray), a woke Black professor who challenges the institution’s status quo at every opportunity and encourages Gail to fight the power, too. Living in the new Master’s hall is Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a transplant from the west coast who is underestimated at every turn. These three women create the fulcrum around which Master rotates as it attempts to address everything from microaggressions and bias in literature to institutional racism and more. It’s refreshing to see any film driven by female characters, and Diallo’s approach certainly provides a handful of scares and shocks along the way. If it loses any momentum, it’s because she’s trying to do so much at once, apparently aiming to tackle every engrained wrong at once and therefore not giving any of them their due.
Each woman’s journey in Master is both unique and intertwined with the others. Jasmine is a young woman navigating a whole new world, struggling to hold onto her identity and confidence as others constantly make assumptions about her background and intelligence. Liv tries a bit too hard to embrace her Blackness and show it off for the world to see (for reasons that become clear towards the end of the film), infusing every lecture and interaction with her perspective on race. And Gail lands somewhere between the two, proud to be the first Black woman to be a Master (and fully aware of the irony of the appointment), yet not unaffected by the slights around every corner (like the very racist cookie jar she finds in cupboards of the house she moves into as Master). Jasmine is in Liv’s literature class, and the two butt heads over Jasmine’s interpretation of The Scarlet Letter; Jasmine makes their dispute formal by filing a complaint with Gail, who is on the committee reviewing Liv’s application for tenure.
Even as Diallo’s script feels at times overstuffed and overextended, the film is never short on suspense, with dark corners hiding creepy secrets and seemingly straightforward social interactions carrying a sinister threat behind them. Jasmine’s white hallmates and Gail’s white colleagues all act as one would expect these enlightened liberals to, though there’s a sheen of insincerity to it all, one that each of the women sees right through. The pressure builds and builds, and though both of them finally combust in very different (and ultimately tragic) ways, the fact that they hold it together as long as they do is a miracle. Hall in particular delivers a wollop in the third act, finally saying (screaming) everything Gail has been thinking since she took on the new role.
Master does two things well: giving us plenty to think about as we learn more about these women and how they navigate the world; and delivering enough suspense and scares to make the film an entertaining thriller. While the commentary Diallo clearly feels strongly about could’ve benefited from a bit of a polish, there is enough in her debut feature film to warrant checking it out as a weekend watch.
Master is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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