Hey, did you hear? Your alma mater’s founders sold slaves to keep the doors open. It was built by slaves. It was named for a slave trader. Its law school was paid for with profits from the slave trade. These histories, all true, are the basis for the high-pitched horror of Mariama Diallo’s Master. Set at a fictional exclusive northeastern college, a rival at one time to Harvard, the film tracks the intertwining stories of three Black protagonists: Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a freshman from Tacoma, Wash.; Gail (Regina Hall), an established faculty member and Master of the students in Jasmine’s haunted hall; and Liv (Amber Gray), an English professor up for tenure who nevertheless is not afraid to call out the historical and present racism of the institution.
While the three women are not the only faculty or students of color on campus, they stand out as among the very few. The three remain subject to a painful parade of microaggressions and more overtly racist comments from their predominantly white academic community, who try and fail to navigate our moment of racial reckoning, if not healing. In conversations about Liz’s research-light tenure file, white faculty awkwardly stumble through racially sensitive language that parrots of their relatively recent training in equity and diversity. In more sinister moments, young Jasmine is painfully singled out as the only Black girl in the room, offhandedly nicknamed Beyoncé, Serena and Lizzo.
Of course, the horror here goes beyond these sickening, condescending social trespasses. There’s a legendary witch to contend with, too, the specter of a member of Ancaster’s founding family, who, if not slaveholders themselves, were at least dedicated to a social order in which Black people knew their place, as meek servants—not students, not outspoken faculty and certainly not masters of any kind. According to the legend, dramatically introduced to Jasmine by a smug, white frat type, the witch annually chooses a victim from among the freshmen to drive to a terrifying suicide. The most recent sacrifice came from the garret room to which Jasmine has been assigned, she’s told, and where, she later learns, another young Black student (the college’s first) was found hanged, an alleged suicide, several decades before. Jasmine’s sense of awkwardness and disorientation on campus becomes deeply entangled with her terror of the witch, who haunts her dreams armed with a noose, as well as with more mundane romantic attractions and her classroom clashes with Liz, who demands a more acute racial consciousness from Jasmine than she seems accustomed to. Meanwhile, Gail, new to the Master’s house, experiences her own hauntings, drawn repeatedly by the sound of a servant’s bell up the residence’s backstairs to the former maid’s room, where a ghostly wind continually reveals to her the festering wound of her institution’s racist past in documents scattered about the room. She looks over them, disgusted, but repeatedly sets them aside, unwilling to investigate further, even as she declares in a speech she’s writing that “there’s work to be done” in achieving equity at the school.
Of course, the real monster in the film is the overwhelming entrenchment of a foundational racism in American life and the broad unwillingness to examine this with any seriousness. And while we might get lost in the endlessly proliferating tendrils of Diallo’s script (which makes many minor characters and situations narratively disposable), while we might be confused by leaps of time and place, the uncertainty about dream and reality, and the almost parodic excess of Master‘s horror tropes, we should also understand that the film’s overload seems to be its point. “It’s everywhere,” Gail informs Jasmine, as they both confront the latest of their struggles to survive in a hostile community, which stretches far beyond the campus and academia. Yes, it’s everywhere, all the time, taking a myriad of forms, and the psychological and social consequences for Diallo’s protagonists are just as inescapable. That we should experience Diallo’s provocative, jagged, and unmanageable representation of this persistent horror seems rather necessary. If we want to think more about how else the film might have been constructed to better exploit its metaphors and clarify its visual and textual logic, we might want to think, first, about where such expectations come from, who established that paradigm, and how it delimits the nevertheless effective, visceral terror and disturbance of Diallo’s work.
Read all of our 2022 Sundance reviews.