Producers: Joshua Astrachan, Brad Becker-Parton and Andrea Roa Director: Mariama Diallo Screenplay: Mariama Diallo Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray, Ella Hunt, Noa Fisher, Kara Young, Bruce Altman, Jennifer Dundas, Will Hochman, Angela Grovey and Joel de la Fuente Distributor: Amazon Studios
Makers of horror films have never shied from delivering socio-political messages with their shocks, but since “Get Out” doing so has become obligatory, and Mariama Diallo certainly doesn’t stint on them— “Master,” her debut feature, is so overburdened with matters of race and class that it’s short on the scares it’s supposed to provide, and muddled as well.
The title refers to Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), who’s just taken up that position, a sort of deanship, at Ancaster College in Salem, Massachusetts, an institution so prestigious that those rejected for admission are frequently forced to go to Harvard as a second choice. She’s the first person of color to hold the title, which of course also carries a suggestion of plantation mentality.
Among the incoming freshmen is Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), from Washington state, one of the few blacks among the student body. She’s naturally excited by the prospect of studying at Ancaster, and moves into the dorm with roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder), who’s already part of an elite crowd that congregates for drinks and witty banter, which includes the information offered by smooth-talking Tyler (Will Hochman) that the girls’ room is associated with the spirit of a seventeenth-century witch who was burned at the stake, and who remains a malevolent presence for those living in it.
One of Jasmine’s classes will be with literature teacher Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), an African-American assistant professor who’s spearheading a diversity and inclusion program on campus. She’s also up for tenure despite an undistinguished publication record that leaves her promotion in doubt.
The film juxtaposes the stories of the three women, which are interrelated but not always in a friendly way. Bishop finds the campus house assigned to her an unsettling place, with noises from the upstairs that suggest people moving about and an infestation of maggots that affects even the portrait of her being painted for inclusion in the masters’ gallery. She also begins experiencing visions of a weeping servant woman who looks very much like her.
And while Bishop is close to Beckman, visiting her to bolster her spirits when things get difficult, she’s also torn over the tenure process in which she has to contend with questions about Liv’s scholarly credentials raised by established faculty members like hardnosed Diandra (Talia Balsam), impressionable Julianne (Jennifer Dundas), smooth-talking Brian (Bruce Altman) and uncertain Lam (Joel de la Fuente). Liv challenges their questions as race-based, and at a time when the college is trying to improve its image, such an accusation could spell trouble.
The tenure process, and Bishop’s involvement in it, are also complicated by a charge of inequitable treatment brought against Beckman by Jasmine, who can’t understand the failing grade she received for an essay on “The Scarlet Letter” because she failed to recognize a racial message she says is embedded in it.
That’s only one aspect of the girl’s troubles. She feels casual hostility from Amelia and her friends (Ella Hunt, Noa Fisher and Kara Young), and others, even the black woman behind the cafeteria counter (Angela Grovey), who’s effusive with the white girls but surly with her. The racism grows more explicit when a threatening message is scrawled on her room door with a noose attached, yet another problem for Bishop.
And that’s not the worst of it. Jasmine suffers hat might be hallucinations-faces on portraits and among the living twisted into ghastly shapes—and is haunted by the story of the ghostly witch, who appears to be stalking her in a series of dreams and may be ready to do so for real. Her concerns lead her to investigate the history of an earlier student—also black—who lived in her room and committed suicide. Her diary notes (kept, rather unaccountably, in the archives) suggests that she was being pursued by the witch as well.
As if all this weren’t enough, the script suggests a conspiratorial attitude among a faculty entirely too devoted to the school’s traditions, and adds toward the close a subplot about cultural appropriation that’s not entirely without precedent but in this context strains credulity.
That merely accentuates the feeling that in stuffing so much of her socio-political agenda into the movie—perhaps afraid that she wouldn’t get another chance—Diallo has created an imbalance, shortchanging the horror elements of the tale. By shuffling among the stories of the three women, moreover, she does justice to none of them. The result is that while containing many good things, “Master” is fully satisfying neither as a horror film nor as a racial parable.
Among the virtues are the performances, of both the three leads and the supporting cast, which are uniformly strong, even if Gray tends to overstatement, particularly at the close. The film is also handsomely made, with the production design by Tommy Love and Meredith Lippincott and Charlotte Hornsby’s cinematography complementing one another in creating an elegantly creepy atmosphere. (The Vassar College locations certainly help.) The mood is sustained by the editing of Jennifer Lee and Maya Maffioli, as well as the score by Robert Aiki and Aubrey Lowe.
One other point of interest, which outsiders won’t necessarily appreciate, is the picture Diallo draws of academic politics, with its internecine antagonisms and accommodations. Those who have be involved in university work, either in teaching of administration, will recognize a good deal of the infighting, even if the group depicted here has some rather peculiar issues to deal with.
A pity that “Master” fails to wrestle all its ingredients into an entirely persuasive whole.