SXSW Movie Review: ‘Master’

Greetings again from the darkness. With her first feature film, writer-director Mariama Diallo shows us that the terror of racism need not be blatant and obvious, and can be subtle and generational. Thanks to Jordan Peele, horror films have become de rigueur for exposing and exploring the many facets of racism. Ms. Diallo embraces the genre, while also mixing in the element of classism and entitlement.

Regina Hall is superb as Gail Bishop, the newly hired first black House Master at Ancaster College, a fictional, Ivy League-type school in the northeast that is as old as our country. Also excellent is Zoe Renee as Jasmine, a high-achieving black incoming freshman. A brilliant touch displays the symmetry of move-in day. Gail moves in to a creaky, dusty old home on campus, while Jasmine draws “the room” in dormitory. What is “the room”? Well, there is a legend tied to student deaths and long-ago witch trials … and 3:33am on the clock.

The supernatural forces attached to her room are only part of the challenges facing Jasmine. There is also her roommate played by Talia Ryder, the overall entitlement of other students, and another interesting character – her professor of Literature, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). Ms. Beckman is friends with Gail, but Jasmine files an official complaint alleging she was targeted on her grade for a paper on racism in “The Scarlet Letter”. Complicating the matter, Ms. Beckman is also black and up for tenure, despite a shaky publishing record and a curious lack of background detail.

The multiple story lines become more intricate with the odd editing and threads as presented. Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby works wonders with the creep factor, but the editing choices are often curious. Gail’s big career stepping stone introduces her to institutional racism at the institution where she’s employed. The three main characters each have their own story arcs, and the intersections are often quite advanced. However, the multiple stories do create some cinematic obstacles, and not all are handled smoothly, especially in the final act. Still, Ms. Diallo announces herself as a filmmaker to watch, and all three lead actors perform admirably.

In select theaters and on Prime Video beginning March 18, 2022

David Ferguson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.