MASTER Review - Sundance Film Fest
E. L. King calls director Mariama Diallo’s first feature an intense, thought-provoking and sincere journey that's supernatural elements are left up to the audience to decipher.
Mariama Diallo is a Brooklyn-based writer and director who's debut feature film Master, premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The narrative is an ingenious blend of occult horror, drama, psychological thriller, and social critique. It's a compelling narrative that lays bare the inherent issue of systemic racism for the American institution that it is. It's a poignant portrait that uses a folk legend and threads it through each characters story in a unique way.
Master focuses on the stories of three black women—Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), who has just been named the "Master" of students at the prestigeous Ancaster College where she works, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) an incoming freshman confronted with the lack of diversity of her peers and Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a professor up for tenure who lacks the same level of credentials as the tenured faculty who came before her.
At the onset, the freshman class is told an unsettling ghost story about a woman named Margaret Millett, who was accused of witchcraft and hung nearby. The elite New England university was built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill in Ancaster, Massachusetts. The first sign of Margaret comes in the middle of the night as a ghoulish hand reaches upward from under Jasmine's bed. She awakens to find scratches on her arm and has disturbing visions that always seem associated with her nightmares. My belief is that the ghost is only a construct and coping mechanism for Jasmine who is experiencing real world micro-agressions from her peers that progressively worsen. She investigates the death of the college's first black student rumored to have hung herself in her dorm in 1965. At this point, the manifestations worsen and Jasmine finds herself in increasingly uncomfortable situations with her peers leading to the word "Leave" being carved into her dormroom door with a noose hanging from the handle.
Jasmine, after a presumed—accidental—fall from her window is prompted by Gail not to leave, but to fight like she did to have a place at the table. When she does return, there is a moment between Jasmine and Liv on the campus quad that forshadows events to come and what already is. The exchange is quite chilling. Liv asks, "What are you trying to do?" Jasmine replies, "I figured it out. I understand now." Liv protests, "I don't think this is the best place for you to be right now." To which Jasmine says, "You're wrong. It doesn't matter where I go. It's everywhere."
It—is racism and what Jasmine is implying is that she cannot escape it. Racism is everywhere. It is painful to watch her acceptance of this and know that she is right. To turn her head and push through it like Gail did simply isn't enough. The reality of this injustice is part of the real terror of the story, not the ghosts. This reality is unsettling, but something we already know and are being compelled not to forget.
Commenting on the film's depictions of micro-agressions director Mariama Diallo had this to say, "The hard thing about taking on something like this is that there's a high expectation. You have to get it right. When you don't, when you fall short or when you fail, it is that much more disturbing to the person on the receiving end. You can't do it cheaply. You can't do it grutuitously. You really have to be careful and it's hard...I'd look at scenes that I had worked my ass off on and written intently, and realized that I was not really getting to the heart of the matter and that I had to, because if I didn't—I was failing in the actual job that I set out to do."
Master is an intense, thought-provoking, honest, complicated, painful, and sincere journey with strong performances from each of its leads that deeply unsettled me. There were profound moments that I felt close to tears and physically ill by the horrifying truths of Jasmine, Gail and Liv's experiences. Prepare yourself for the mental anquish of each character's story. The final act delivers incredibly unexpected twists, turns and a range of emotions. The supernatural elements and the question of whether or not the witch is real is very much left up to the audience to determine.
You won't have to wait long to see the film yourself. Master will premiere on Amazon Prime on March 18, 2022.