With Netflix reporting a loss of subscribers for the first time, Amazon Prime continues building up its original content. Among its latest new movies in 2022, writer and director Mariama Diallo promises a mix of horror and social commentary with her first film, Master. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the recent Candyman remake, Master uses horror to explore racial tension and discrimination. Regina Hall brings her veteran talent to this thriller alongside some new faces. To date, critics have largely been impressed.
At the prestigious New England Ancaster College, three women of color at different lifestages navigate a space historically, and still very much, white. First-year student Jasmine Moore struggles to fit in, while assistant professor Liv Beckman faces the pressure of the academic tenure process. And tenured Gail Bishop, the first Black master at the college, discovers that historical legacies of racism still persist. Soon campus legends of witchcraft and curses coincide with anonymous racial violence putting all three women at risk.
Master an Often Frustrating Blend of Supernatural and Real Horror
Perhaps Master is best described as two movies in one that mostly converge. As a horror movie, Master likely will satisfy and frustrate audiences in equal measures. Despite this being director Mariama Diallo demonstrates a remarkable confidence in her slow burn approach. Early in the movie, Diallo ensures audiences are familiar with the campus legend of Margaret Millett, an accused witch, and the tragedies that have plagued Room 302. In addition to adding ambiguity to the events that unfold, it also allows to Diallo to immediately establish an unsettling tone. By and large, Master maintains that tone eschewing jump scares for the burgeoning horror of the very real violence on campus.
In addition to adding ambiguity to the events that unfold, it also allows to Diallo to immediately establish an unsettling tone.
But Master diverges from its horror roots in its third act. Is Ancaster College haunted? Or is it human hatred and prejudice behind the racial violence? Diallo offers no direct answers. instead, Master abandons most of its horror elements in favor of a more meditative reflection on the ways in which systemic racism embeds itself even in the most well-meaning of institutions. That is, Diallo leaves everything that happened up to a subjective interpretation. On one hand, it’s a critically challenging approach that forces you to unpack what you’ve just watched. Yet it’s also a little dissatisfying given that it’s not just story threads left open – Master feels like it leaves its horror behnd.
Master Aptly Balances Complex Themes in its Challenging Story
Regardless of these shortcomings, Master undoubtedly weaves a complex narrative. To her credit, Diallo balances several different themes, all timely and challenging. While Jasmine’s experiences cast a light on the implicit biases experienced by students of color, Gail’s story exposes concerns about tokenism that may emerge from bureaucratic efforts at diversity. And Liv’s arc tackles the appropriation of racialized identities harkening to the Rachel Dolezal story and similar real-world controversies. All of these character arcs intersect offering social commentary of the often performative nature of social justice found in academia. Like other parts of the story, Diallo offers no answers, only more questions.
…Gail’s story exposes concerns about tokenism that may emerge from bureaucratic efforts at diversity
Three strong performances form the principal cast further elevate Master from other genre fare. From removed from the Scary Movie franchise, Regina Hall excels with a quietly strong delivery. Even if the movie’s finale doesn’t fully satisfy, Hall ensures you emotional investment in the story was well spent. Newcomer Zoe Renee is equally impressive as an initially naïve Jasmine. Her performance makes Jasmine’s character arc all the more heartbreaking. Arguably, Amber Grey finds herself with the most challenging role. She lives up to the challenge ensuring that audiences are unable to draw any quick or easy decisions about her character.
Master Ultimately Finds a Compelling Story From Complex Ideas
Master is a consistently gripping experience brimming with big ideas. In fact, this thriller may have too many different ideas up in the air. But Diallo skillfully draws everything together into an effective commentary on racism and hypocrisy in academia. While its subtext is clear Master leaves many other story threads ambiguous. In particular, Diallo, intentionally or unintentionally, never draws clear connections between the horror and the subtext. Much of the horror elements also take a backseat in the final act, which may prove frustrating. Nonetheless, Master is impressive debut from Diallo.