Mariama Diallo’s first film, “Master”, is set at the fictional University of Ancaster, a New England university so elite that FDR was rejected and had to attend its security school – Harvard. The Ancaster campus also happens to be haunted by Salem-era witches, the inspiration for bizarre legends passed down from class to class. Diallo’s psychological horror combines the sensibilities of ‘Dear White People’ and ‘Get Out’, following three black women on their exclusive college journeys: Gail (Regina Hall), a newly promoted ‘housewife’ from a dormitory; Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a wide-eyed freshman; and Liv (Amber Gray), teacher. By presenting their stories, the film provides a haunting critique of historically racist institutions like Ancaster and their resistance to change. While the storyline of “Master” leaves too many untied threads to match the cultural resonance of thematically similar films like “Get Out”, it is nonetheless an oddly moving story that reveals the psychological toll of racism and ponders what it means to be black and truly belong in America.
As Jasmine navigates her first year, Gail begins her new position as the first black housewife in Ancaster (a true honorary title that has only recently been retirement from Harvard), and Liv is under consideration for tenure. In a school with very few people of color, the myriad microaggressions they face are portrayed with poignant authenticity. Subtly racist interactions are woven into the characters’ everyday experiences so that they become normal, expected, yet painful nonetheless. Jasmine’s bag is searched at the library, and on another occasion, a note is left for her in the bathroom calling her hair “disgusting”. Gail is jokingly called “Barack” by her white colleagues as they congratulate her on her new job. As these daily interactions demonstrate, the film is always in tune with the lived realities of black women in predominantly white spaces. Telling the story through the eyes of students and faculty members, Diallo candidly recounts how black women face discrimination, regardless of age or status.
Early in the film, Jasmine and Gail begin to experience disturbing phenomena on campus. Jasmine has been assigned to a dorm believed to be haunted by a witch, and Gail notices strange happenings and historical relics in the attic of the house she lives in as the householder. Especially early in the film, Diallo does a great job of setting a sinister tone, pitting the hope of a fresh start against the threat of the school’s chilling past and present horrors. She makes careful use of shadows, throwing the mundane into the macabre; soft red lighting is used to create an eerie and off-putting aesthetic in the dorm. Normal college experiences become uncomfortable for Jasmine as she repeatedly finds herself as one of the only black girls in the room. A party scene in a fraternity illustrates how Diallo effectively communicates this unease; As the white students surrounding Jasmine begin rapping to the crowd-pleasing “Mo Bamba,” dropping the n-word without a second thought, she begins to feel claustrophobic and anxious.
The stakes rise for the protagonists as it is slowly revealed how black women have historically been targeted at this university. Hall, Gray, and Renee are all compelling as they embody the fear and anger that comes with trying to survive in an institution that devalues and threatens their existence. Jasmine has a particularly emotional arc as she deals with increasingly gruesome instances of racial terror, which Renee brings to life with touching vulnerability.
Despite its powerful message about the insidious nature of institutional racism, “Master” doesn’t quite tie together all of its storylines in a satisfying way. While it is indeed compelling to use the supernatural to exacerbate the real horrors of racism, Diallo never really elaborates on how the presence of witches on campus relates to the protagonists’ real-life experiences with racism. Such ambiguities spark heated conversations, but ultimately there are too many unanswered questions to offer a coherent view of how the supernatural represents white supremacy. Additionally, while it’s heartwarming to see the stories of three black women centered around “Master,” it would have been all the more empowering to see them maintain a sense of agency as the story unfolds. unfolds. All three leads would have benefited from more character development, more detailed stories, and some kind of hope they (and their audience) could cling to. While their experiences are certainly realistic in many ways, it’s also disenchanting to see the characters rendered helpless in the face of a visibly broken system.
“Master” isn’t without its flaws, but it’s nonetheless a smartly considered portrayal of racial dynamics in historically exclusive, predominantly white institutions — those that too often try to portray themselves as champions of diversity these days. . The film has all the components of a powerful social thriller; he just needed those pieces to fit together more cohesively.
—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at [email protected]