Master Movie Review: Horrors spookier than gore and ghosts
Mariama Diallo's film Master starring Regina Hall is a mirror of a society that is unapologetic about inherent racism, and the systemic oppression
The horror in director-writer Mariama Diallo's Master delves beyond the metaphysical. It digs into systemic oppression, generational trauma, post-modern woke equality, and self-care discussion, with an eye for detail that is depicted with subtlety. There is a fine line between tokenism and representation, and Master, in its portrayal of the lives of two Black women draws visual parallels to explain the horrors of racism. The idea here is to portray that the horrors that people of colour experience in the presence of powerful white people — who mistakenly believe that they are allies — is equal to, if not worse than the horrors brought on by supernatural beings.
Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray
Director: Mariama Diallo
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
We meet a first-year college student -- Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) -- enters an educational institution as old as the country she lives in. The moment is heavy with a pause as she looks up at the institution indicating how much of a 'privilege' this acceptance is for her. Yet, she is unable to grab hold of this opportunity, at least not without harming herself. She is one of the very few (eight to be exact) Black students in Ancaster College, and she has joined the very same year that the institution hires its first Black 'Master' of a resident hall. This Master — Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) — takes on her position with pride, and hopes to make changes.
Two women, on a brand new path, one that they must be proud of, and yet, they are unable to really enjoy the fruit of their labour. Jasmine meets ill-informed students who think it is alright for them to call her by the names of popular Black artists. She looks like them, she must be them -- the flippancy that comes with racism passed over generations is not stressed, but the background score underlines Jasmine's discomfort. There is also the incident when a huge crowd of white students sing along to rap verses that includes slurs such as ni*** without hesitation. Jasmine is overwhelmed and feels unsafe at this point. None of which is expressed in words. The lights, and the circle of people crowding her pass the message just fine.
The incidents may seem small and fragmented, but the fear that Jasmine experiences pervade into the corners of her mind. This fear haunts her dreams and the horrors of the past, experiences penned by women of color who lived in the very room that she occupied at the moment aggravate Jasmine's anxiety. A noose hung outside her door with the word 'Leave' etched on her door is just a prank in the eyes of the other students, but the horrors of being hung for just their existence is not something that Jasmine can erase. The targetted bullying is not deemed important enough by the faculty, and continuously turning a blind eye to these incidents pushes Jasmine further into a corner. Her passion for literature, her excitement for a brand new life which was visible in the first scene are both extinguished because nothing has changed.
In contradiction to Jasmine's position, Gail is in a position of power at the institution. However, a force that opposes her is a faculty that is presided for the most part by white men and women. Making her the Master of a resident hall is something they are proud of and their compliments are backhanded. Her inclusion is a move to make their institution look more diverse, but there is always doubt that lurks on the surface. Her professionalism is questionned while a fellow Black woman's tenureship is being discussed. Can she be objective? A flustered Gail tries her very best to walk on the tight ropes of not ruffling these people's feathers. She is used to the work that socialising with such people takes, but it does take a toll on her.
Her hopes for changing things die a slow death and the journey towards her hopelessness is dark and disturbing as it should be. Their lives and stories do not have to fit into a box that is absent of scrutiny. As Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) rightly says, "It doesn't have to make sense to you. You didn't live it, it is not your story." As the only other Black woman in the institute who is currently a professor, she is a close friend of Gail. Her tenureship is what causes the tension between Gail and other faculty members in the first place. However, in the face of a tragedy that the institution must hide, Liv receives her tenureship to sit with the faculty. The point of view switches here with no pause for regret. Gail is overwhelmed with her friend and colleagues' indifference and a chilling scene here drives the point home.
The final nail in the coffin is a comparison between the oppressors of the past -- the ones who enslaved Gail's ancestors -- with the pseudo-liberals of the present. The faces blur into each other, and Gail has an epiphany as one privileged white man says, "Don't worry, I am not going anywhere..." and she completes the thought by saying, "and it's not going to change."
The best part about the film is the fact that it doesn't approach racism as a problem to be solved within the setting of the film. It is a commentary on how racism continues to be inherent and thrives in places where white people hold power.
On a side note, it is befitting that Nina Simone's I Shall be Released plays out as the credits roll, as it heightens the impact of the film.