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Master review – racism haunts a New England university in uneven horror | Sundance 2022

Writer and director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, Master, explores the challenges faced by two Black women at a prestigious New England university that continues to be haunted by ghosts of the past, figurative and perhaps literal.

Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall) has just been appointed the school’s first Black master, a prestigious faculty position overseeing a residence hall. (A holdover from elite British universities, it’s a glorified, proto-resident adviser.) But the predominantly white (and fictional) Ancaster College, which is almost as old as America itself, has a dark past it can’t seem to shake, as the site of a Salem-era witch trial and hanging. According to campus lore, the witch now haunts the grounds, and as freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) learns upon her arrival, her room in particular is said to be inhabited by a malignant force; the school’s first Black student killed herself there in the late 60s, she discovers.

The pernicious specter of racism likewise hangs over the campus, rearing its head in places like the library (“Your family must be so proud of you,” a librarian tells Jasmine condescendingly, moments before searching her bag for possibly stolen books) and a house party, where a dancing crowd automatically congregates around Jasmine at the hint of a rap song. But the micro-aggressions eventually escalate from deep unease to downright hate, pushing Jasmine from disorientation to sheer terror. Meanwhile, Gail, once a full-throated advocate for the school, becomes increasingly aware of the impact of the institution’s unresolved past on the present, especially in light of a fellow Black professor’s bid for tenure.

The moments of discomfort and careful navigation ring particularly true for anyone who has stood out in an overwhelmingly white (even seemingly well-meaning) space of privilege and had the majority make assumptions about them; in fact, Diallo drew on her own experiences as a student at Yale. (That university did away with the term master in 2016 in response to student protests.) And there are a lot of well-observed, telling details that pass by unremarked, as they would in real life: Jasmine straightens her hair soon after arriving; Ancaster’s custodial staff – silent, always in the background – are all Black; the Black cafeteria worker puts on a jovial, maternal mien for white students eager to gobble up her macaroni-and-cheese but gives Jasmine the cold shoulder. Not to mention some very timely conversations involving critical race theory and diversity efforts versus merit (and one fun diversity video full of token people of color, rattling off buzzwords à la mode). Hall, always a joy to watch, shows yet another, more subdued, side of her prodigious craft.

But the film fails to build real suspense, and the scary scenes feel rote and often inelegant, like ticking off a college-horror-movie shot list: the flickering-lights-in-the-shower scene, the running-through-an-empty-campus scene, the slow ascent to the attic door ajar, the mysterious threats carved on to a door, the odd unexpected telephone call. None of the white characters feel remotely real: not the roommate in the Hamptons sweatshirt; not the ignorant British classmate who says smugly, “All that racial-dynamic stuff, we don’t have it back home”; not the professor who is relieved to see Gail at a party because it “could use a little more flavor”. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it all gloms on an inertness to the proceedings.

Genre films help audiences engage with difficult real-life issues – they make the medicine go down, and the hope is that wider audiences find much in Master to ponder about how to deal with our painful history in order to move forward. As Gail puts it, “It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural, it’s America, and it’s everywhere.”