When Professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall, “Support the Girls”) is promoted to head up Belleville House at elite Ancaster College, she is celebrated for being the first black woman to do so. But when freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee, "Jinn"), one of the school’s few black students, moves into a top floor room said to be haunted, then clashes with a black professor struggling to attain tenure, Gail realizes there is something insidious in being called “Master.”
Laura's Review: B-
Writer/director Mariama Diallo makes skilled use of the horror genre in her debut feature, one which views the embedded racism in an elite college through the different perspectives of three black women on its campus, some of whom are more prone to interpret events as supernatural than others. The film is, however, derivative of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and not all of its events and ideas add up upon reflection. Still, Diallo’s horrific presentation of everyday racism provides an empathetic journey into its devastating psychological impact.
‘She got the room’ smirks the freshman counselor (Julia Nightingale) to the group of white students with clipboards introducing Jasmine to their campus, explaining the lore of Salem era witch Margaret Millett said to haunt the grounds. Jasmine will learn later that the school’s first black student, Louisa Weeks, jumped to her death from her dorm room window. Meanwhile Gail is moving into the new home reflecting her new status, puzzling over muddy footprints in the living room of the closed up space where the bust of a colonist towers draped beneath a translucent white plastic drop cloth like a ghost. Inspecting the premises, Gail finds an old photograph on the wall depicting its former Master and his wife, a black maid glaring right at her from behind a door left ajar off center in the frame. The black cafeteria worker (Angela Grovey, "Joyful Noise") who jokes with the blonde girls in line before her glowers when Jasmine stands before her.
As in “Get Out,” both women are compared to black celebrities by their white peers, their blackness their only distinguishing characteristic. Jasmine receives unwanted attention from her roommate Amelia’s (Talia Ryder, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always") boyfriend Tyler (Will Hochman, "Let Him Go"), treated as an exotic novelty on a dance floor. The freshman is most troubled, though, by the failing grade she receives from Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray, TV's 'The Underground Railroad') when she challenges Beckman’s assertion that race plays a part in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (‘It was easy,’ Cressida (Ella Hunt, "Anna and the Apocalypse") tells her later, having equated the titular color with the Native American Indian). When the high achieving Jasmine files a formal complaint about Beckman with Bishop, Bishop finds herself in a politically fraught position within the board assessing Beckman’s tenure. Diallo pits the woman used to playing the game against the one who naively believes she can challenge it while a freshman facing the real world for the first time spirals between them.
Diallo’s film works best as it builds from microaggressions (a mammy cookie jar) to systemic racism (a library security alarm) to criminal terror (a burning cross), but while her idea of blurring the line between supernatural and real world evil is intriguing, it doesn’t completely work. While a mysterious black cloaked and hooded figure could be attributed to either Millet or the Amish type people in the area, creepy things experienced by Gail have no real explanation.
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie stands in for Ancaster, red lighting giving its Gothic architecture ominous overtones. Hall gives the strongest performance of the three women, fewer emotions demanded of Renee and Gray’s characters. The film also stars Talia Balsam ("South Mountain") and Bruce Altman ("The Paper") as Bishop’s status quo affirming colleagues.
Robin's Review: B-
Amazon releases “Master” in select theaters and on Prime on 3/18/22.