‘Master’ (2022) Review: Attempts to Tackle Academia’s Racist Past

Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, Master, uses race as an allegory for fear and exclusion in a historically (and fictional) institution known for its racist past. It centres around the experiences of three Black women and portrays the institutional racism in academia with supernatural elements as well as real-world horrors. It’s a stunning feature that discusses racism and exclusion using horror elements. Previously, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us uses race and politics as a critical social commentary and genre itself. Master heightens the horror elements and looks at the real-world stakes of the historically racist institution and meddles with the microaggressions of racial politics.

At Ancaster College, freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) moves to the campus and receives her room assignment from student volunteers. The campus is said to be haunted by the spirit of a woman, who was hanged as a witch centuries ago, and a few decades ago, claimed the life of a freshman due to being linked to the curse. The campus legends mention that the ghost of the witch haunts the room at exactly 3:33 am and takes a freshman student to hell. Meanwhile, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is an established faculty member, who recently got promoted to the role of “Master” or the dean of students. She moves into a house reserved for that role and finds herself surrounded by historically racist objects of Black servitude. Within the walls of the campus and dorms, a sinister shadow lurks behind the walls and begins to haunt the lives of Jasmine and Gail.

Ancaster College has a dominant white study body with a few Black students, and Jasmine is one of the few students the audience sees in the movie. From the beginning, Jasmine, an energetic and wide-eyed freshman, encounters microaggressions from her roommate Amelia’s (Talia Ryder) friends. One night as Amelia and her friends are in their shared room, there’s a spill on the floor, and one of Amelia’s friend's orders Jasmine to clean it. In another instance, when Jasmine returns to her room after class, Amelia’s friends are there once again and start calling her names such as the Williams sisters and Nicki Minaj. At a party, a crowd that mostly consists of white students and fraternity brothers sing loudly to a hip hop song that uses the N-word. Jasmine gets in trouble at the library and her bag is inspected by the librarian. A Black canteen lady enthusiastically greets the white students but regards Jasmine with coldness. These types of racist harassment towards Jasmine get worse over time to the point where she has to investigate the history of Ancaster College and what happened to the girl that hanged herself decades ago.

At the same time, Gail’s role as the first Black “Master” has a heavy and uncomfortable history that echoes the walls of the house that she resides in. As she settles in her new home, she hears bells ringing through the halls and finds a photograph of a white family with a servant in the background. She finds a mammy doll and documentation of racist archival materials in the house. One night, she finds her portrait filled with an infestation of maggots, and these racist sentiments keep continuing more and more to the point where Gail and Jasmine’s lives at the campus become intertwined.

These racist incidents become more dangerous and put Jasmine in a position of danger, but the audience does not know where or who the threats are coming from, but the idea is presented within the narrative. Jasmine’s room to find the word “LEAVE” carved on her door with a noose tied to the doorknob. Gail hears about this incident and as understandably, becomes very upset and tries to help Jasmine find out who did this. On top of this, Gail is dealing with a grading dispute between Jasmine and Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a junior English professor who is up for tenure and is trying to secure a place at the prestigious college. Gail doesn’t want to jeopardise Liv’s, who is her closest friend at the college, academic career, or her tenure to be in jeopardy. She tries to minimise and solve the issues before anything gets out of hand.

Master does a great job portraying the tension between the characters using horror elements and their disagreements with one another. All of these women have different experiences and circumstances and yet, they are the ones trying to clean up the mess from generations ago. Gail wants to change the flaws within the system of the racist institution despite knowing that she dealt with racist attacks and sentiments during her time as a student and teacher at Ancaster College. Whereas Jasmine, who is disturbed by the racist incidents, wants to discover the cause behind the supernatural occurrences and the history of Ancaster College. Liv is an activist and wants to push the boundaries of the campus but sometimes takes the route to it in a more opportunistic way. The tension between the faculty and the campus puts these three Black women against each other. What is disturbing and truthful about Master is how the faculty and the institution turn a blind eye to the horrors of racism towards a Black student.

The distortion of reality using horror and supernatural elements elevates the narrative, but only just. Even though Master uses race and politics as critiques in the movie, one that is most likely to be compared to Peele’s movies, Diallo’s movie commits to the central allegory. It looks at the critiques of white liberalism and racism in academia which shows that history is never inseparable from America’s racist past. However, Diallo’s movie claims to be a horror movie with supernatural elements, there is a disconnection between that and the racist incidents. At best, Master packages itself as a commentary on racism in America and the suppression of that history itself. Regardless, Diallo created a story that is bold and astonishingly unique, twisted with jolts and tension of a surprising final act.

Edited by: Andres Guzman

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