Six minutes into Mariama Diallo’s “Master,” before anything in the night has gotten even a little bumpy, the film is as scary as it gets. But it’s not so much fear of as fear of: Hopeful, excited freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) begins the fall semester as one of the few black students at Ancaster College, a fictional bastion of white Ivy League privilege. And she’s so sympathetically drawn by Diallo (whose own Yale experiences inform the story) and so appealingly played by Renee that given the gentle, menacing cues from the camera and score, we know immediately that we fear for her. The precise nature of what is in store is almost immaterial; The waning of their bright, eager world optimism is a looming tragedy in itself.
There have been a few strange occurrences. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), a staff Ancaster professor, upon moving into the grand old house, discovers an inexplicable muddy footprint that is one of the benefits of being ordained as the new master of Belleville Hall – a sort of advisor, companion and guardian to those who live there Girl. Jasmine’s Guidance Advisor lets out a surprised squeak when she sees that Jasmine has been assigned “this room” but doesn’t explain further. Regardless, a cleverly cut opening draws a parallel between the two characters, separated by a generation but united in an obvious, well-earned pride at opening doors to a future few black women have had access to.
Jasmine meets her roommate, Amelia (Talia Ryder), who is already part of a crew. They make way for the newcomer – not ebulliently, but not reluctantly – once Jasmine reveals herself to be the fun, friendly, cool girl that she is. But the room they share has an unfortunate history: the very first Black Ancaster student hanged herself here in the ’60s, and since then there have been many rumors of it being haunted, possibly by a witch living in the pilgrimage period was burned nearby.
At the same time, Gail is networking by throwing a housewarming party for her (mostly white) co-workers, where she discovers a racist figure hidden under the sink. It’s disturbing, but nowhere near as much as the unconscious condescension with which she is treated by her peers. Gail’s lovable, practiced responses to her cheerful prejudices suggest how much pride she’s had to swallow to get where she is. But they also reinforce her complicity, her tacit agreement to be grateful enough to be here in the first place so she won’t fight back as the engulfing ivy of the institution’s inherently conservative traditions gradually consumes life—and fire and protest – choked out of her.
Even an innocuous greeting like “Welcome to the club!” sounds loaded when used by an old white man in ostensible congratulations to a Black woman, while the Dean (Talia Balsam) jokes when she hears that Gail is a possible future President is described: “Would you like me to call you ‘Barack’?”
“Your parents must be so proud,” the librarian tells Jasmine with sugar-sweet sincerity, before going through her bag for stolen books. And it’s not just the white staff who treat Jasmine differently: the black cafeteria worker goes into frosty mode around her, and her literature professor Liv (Amber Gray) – a long-braided social justice activist who is Gail’s best friend is — she dismisses Input while showering her classmates with praise (“Brilliant, Cressida!”). Any micro-aggression dulls Jasmine and Gail’s resolve and enthusiasm for macro effects, lending Master its heartbreakingly pessimistic pull.
But despite this succinctly dramatic perspective, Diallo is determined to make a horror film, and soon those well-watched moments are smothered in a barrage of supernatural hokum that, paradoxically, makes “Master” that much more mundane.
Jasmine fights with Amelia over a boy and starts having nightmares while waking up with mysterious scratches on her body. Gail is constantly distracted by the ringing of a bell in the old servants’ quarters of her home. A nearby community of Puritan holdouts provides an eerie backdrop for nocturnal rituals, and a hooded figure begins to hang in Jasmine’s peripheral vision even before she receives her dead predecessor’s diary to read at 3am under the inevitably flickering lights in the library to read. None of these ho-hum fear tactics pack half as much queasy cargo as a room full of fraternal white dudes jumping around Jasmine shouting the N-word along to a rap song. None have the eerie tingle of Gail, who was invited to “add spice” to a room full of white academics sipping wine and listening to Christopher Cross.
As if the film itself were unconvinced of its horror film trappings, the final third is almost entirely devoid of supernatural elements. Instead, it focuses on current colorism and transitory problems, on racial symbolism in science, and the limits of an individual’s power to effect institutional change. These are interesting and tricky subjects dealt with intelligently and with insight, and coupled with a subplot about a possible rape and myriad other motives that lead nowhere, they more than justify the fleeting screen time they’re getting here.
“It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural. It’s America and it’s everywhere,” Gail tells Jasmine. Though delivered with serious elegance by an engaging and persuasive Hall, it’s an unusually chunky, on the nose line that also points to the central flaw in Diallo’s stylistically promising but narratively undisciplined debut. The ghosts of Ancaster’s racist past aren’t half as chilling as their solid flesh-and-blood manifestations in the present, for history repeats itself not just in metaphor and ghostly whispers, but loud and open to those who haven’t heard it around for the first time.
And so “Master” becomes a genre film in which the outlandish generic elements – the witches and maggots, the sizzling lightbulbs and the out-of-sync shadows – are far less frightening than the portrayal of this real, everyday world where racism isn’t a long time coming dead bogeyman; it is alive, breathing, banal.
Rated: R, for language and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Play: begins March 18 at Alamo Drafthouse, Downtown Los Angeles; the Landmark, West Los Angeles; also available on Amazon Prime Video
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-03-17/master-movie-review-regina-hall-mariama-diallo Review: Horror film “Master” starring Regina Hall