Mariama Diallo is a Brooklyn-based writer and director whose debut feature film, Master, is decidedly unnerving. 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 the story of each character in a unique way.
Master focuses on the stories of three black women. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has just been named the "Master" of students at the prestigious Ancaster College. Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an incoming freshman, is confronted with the lack of diversity of her peers. At the same time, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) is 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.
The ghost is a construct and coping mechanism for Jasmine, who is experiencing micro-aggressions 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 — the same room that Jasmine now resides in. At this point, the manifestations worsen, and Jasmine finds herself in increasingly uncomfortable situations, leading to the word "Leave" being carved into her dorm room 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 foreshadows 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."
The "it" she refers to is racism, and Jasmine is implying that she cannot escape it. Racism is everywhere and certainly baked into the colonial roots of the college. It is painful to watch her internal struggle with her circumstances. 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, and we are being compelled by Diallo not to forget.
Commenting on the film's depictions of micro-aggressions, Diallo noted, "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 gratuitously. 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 realize 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 narrative with strong performances from each of its leads that deeply disturbs. There were profound moments where audiences may be close to tears and physically ill by the horrifying truths of Jasmine, Gail, and Liv's experiences and the mental anguish of their stories. 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 are left up to the audience to determine.