February 2, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Mariama Diallo
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ancaster, Massachusetts, the horror film “Master” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to a prestigious university.
Culture Clash: A college professor, who is the first African American leader of a co-ed dormitory, finds herself getting involved in the problems of another African American woman, who is a first-year undergraduate student and might be the target of a curse that has haunted the college campus.
Culture Audience: “Master” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in horror movies that have social commentary about race relations in America.
“Master” has similar racism themes that were explored in filmmaker Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out,” an impactful story about an African American man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time and experiences terror that he did not expect. Instead of an upscale suburban house that’s the setting for the horror in “Get Out,” the horror in “Master” takes place on an upscale college campus and through the perspectives of African American women. In many ways, “Master” skillfully depicts the parallels between supernatural horror and realistic racism, but other parts of the movie needed improvement in resolving certain characters’ storylines.
Some viewers might find the ending of “Master” to be underwhelming or unsatisfying. However, the movie delivers enough suspense-filled scenes to be an entertaining thriller, especially for people who prefer horror movies that don’t have a lot a bloody gore. “Master” also has the benefit of a talented ensemble cast convincingly portraying the characters that are sometimes underdeveloped in the movie’s compelling but flawed screenplay. “Master” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, “Master” takes place almost entirely on the campus of the fictional Ancaster College in Ancaster, Massachusetts. Ancaster College is a prestigious institution that is one of the oldest colleges in the United States. The college campus was built on the land where a woman named Margaret Millett was hanged for witchcraft on December 3, 1694. And you know what that means for a horror movie.
“Master,” which is set in the present day, opens with the arrival of a freshman undergraduate student named Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee), who immediately catches the attention of the other students. Why? For starters, she’s one of the few African American students on campus. Secondly, Jasmine has been assigned a dorm room (Room 302) that has a notorious and sinister reputation for being haunted. Jasmine is living in a co-ed dormitory called Belleville House. Not far from Belleville House is the site where suspected witch Margaret Millett was hanged.
Jasmine finds out later why the room is said to be cursed. But on her move-in day, she has no idea that there’s anything wrong with the room. She gets a hint though, when she tells some students that she’s in Room 302 at Belleville, and they react by telling her that she has “the room.” The tone in their voices indicates that “the room” means that Jasmine is either going to be the target of danger or the target of some cruel pranks.
Jasmine’s roommate is a spoiled and jaded student named Amelia (played by Talia Ryder), who is also in her first year at Ancaster College. The college has recently appointed a new “house master” for Belleville: Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall), a tenured professor who is the first black person to become an Ancaster College house master. Gail is also an alum of Ancaster College, so she is accustomed to being in this predominantly white environment. However, based on the fact that it’s taken this long for Ancaster College to appoint a black person to a house master position, this elite institution isn’t as progressive as some of its politically liberal officials would like to think it is.
The use of the word “master” for the title of a house leader is also very outdated, since it conjures up images and attitudes of what it meant to be a “master” of a house when slavery was legal in the United States. According to the production notes for “Master,” when writer/director Diallo was an undergraduate at Yale University, the word “master” was still used at the university as the title for a dormitory house leader. Yale stopped using the word “master” for this house leader title in 2016, after students protested over the slavery connotations of the term.
In the “Master” production notes, Diallo describes an experience that she had years after she graduated from Yale, when she saw a former “master” of a Yale house where she used to live: “I was so excited to see him that I called out hello, addressing him as Master. He looked hugely uncomfortable because we were in earshot of a ton of people … Anyway, we went on to have a lovely conversation. But as soon as I walked away, I told myself I had to make a film about it because it really threw into relief how bizarre that term, that relationship is. And I knew I wanted to call it ‘Master’ because of the multiple layers of meaning.”
In “Master,” Gail thinks of herself as an approachable, qualified and inspirational leader. At her first meeting with the students living in Belleville House, she reminds them how privileged they are to be Ancaster College students: “Two U.S. presidents and an army of senators count this school as their alma mater,” she declares proudly. She adds, “I am more than a professor. I am a confidante, an ally, a friend.”
She also makes a statement where she might be psychologically projecting how she feels about Ancaster College: “My last fact: You will never go back home again. When you head to your hometowns over break, it will be as visitors … All I can say to you now is, ‘Welcome home.'” Gail’s comment assumes that everyone will feel at home on the Ancaster College campus—or at least at Belleville House, which she’s been tasked to lead. Gail will soon find out how wrong she was with this assumption.
The movie makes a point of showing that Gail’s life revolves around her work. There are clues that even though she’s been given this “master” position, things won’t go smoothly for her. She’s had to move into the “master” living quarters near Belleville. She lives alone and doesn’t have much of a personal life.
Gail is not particularly close to anyone at work, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work, and she doesn’t mention having any love interests. Gail is an only child, and her only family appears to be her mother, who lives far away. This lack of a nearby support system adds to the isolation Gail feels when things start to go wrong.
In an early scene in the movie, Gail tries to open the door to the house where she’s recently moved, but the lock is jammed. As she walks away in frustration, the door mysteriously opens on its own. It can be interpreted as a sign of a ghostly presence. However, if viewers look at “Master” as a way of showing how institutions and people can be haunted by racism (which is Diallo’s overall message of this movie), the eerie incident with the locked door is a symbolic way of showing Gail might have been invited into the elite echelon of house masters, but she’s still going to face some barriers.
One of the best things about “Master” is the way it accurately shows racism in its many forms. People who are racist or have unconscious racist biases often don’t think they are racists. But their racism comes out in subtle ways, such as when they immediately ask a black person why they are in a place that happens to be populated with mostly white people—as if the black person has to justify a reason to exist in that place. Meanwhile, white people in the same place aren’t given the same type of scrutiny.
Another form of racism is automatically assuming that a black student at a prestigious university got there because of an athletic scholarship, Affirmative Action/tokenism, or because they’re related to a celebrity. People who have this type of racism find it hard to believe that a black person can get into a prestigious university based on intellectual merit, such as excellent academics and being a well-rounded student—the same reasons why many people automatically assume white students are at prestigious universities.
Jasmine experiences some of this subtle racism when she interacts with Amelia and Amelia’s campus friends, who are all white. Amelia and her friends don’t really exclude Jasmine, but they make it clear that they don’t want Jasmine to be their close friend without even getting to know her first. On the first night that Jasmine and Amelia hang out with some other first-year female students at Ancaster College, Jasmine finds out that Amelia already knows some of these students because they were in the same network of elite high schools. By contrast, Jasmine (who is quiet and reserved) doesn’t know anyone at Ancaster College when she arrives there.
The teens play the drinking game Never Have I Ever. And it soon becomes obvious to Jasmine that Amelia and her friends are more sexually experienced than Jasmine is, since one of the challenges in this drinking game is “Never have I ever been part of the Mile High Club.” As Amelia and her friends brag about their partying antics during high-priced vacations, Jasmine looks a little uncomfortable. She gives the impression that she’s the bookish type.
And so, when the drinking challenge is “Never have I ever pissed on myself,” Jasmine seems relieved that she has a “wild” story to share too. She’s the only one in the group who admits that she’s urinated on herself. Jasmine explains it happened once when she was sleepwalking. The other teens look horrified and a little disgusted with Jasmine’s story, even though it’s hard to believe (considering all their drunken partying) that no one else in the group ever urinated on themselves.
Jasmine experiences racism one evening when she goes back to her dorm room and finds Amelia hanging out with some of Amelia’s male and female friends. Jasmine is the only person of color in the room. The other people look at Jasmine as if she’s intruding (even though it’s her room too), and they invite her to join the conversation, with a hint of reluctance. A guy named Tyler (played by Will Hochman) immediately zeroes in on Jasmine to question what she’s doing at Ancaster College.
Tyler asks sarcastically, “Who are you? Beyoncé?” He then rattles off some names of other famous black female entertainers, such as Nicki Minaj and Lizzo. Even though he says it in a joking manner, his racist condescension is obvious. Jasmine tries to laugh off Tyler’s backhanded insult disguised as a joke, but viewers can see that it bothers Jasmine, and she’s hurt.
There are three main reasons why Tyler’s “joking around” is racially offensive. First, Tyler doesn’t see Jasmine as being intellectually worthy of being at Ancaster College, so he questions why she’s there, and then compares her to entertainers as a reason for why she’s at this elite college. He doesn’t question why the white students are there. Second, Tyler lists only black female entertainers who use sexuality to sell their images, so he immediately tries to put Jasmine in a sexual context, which is a racial stereotype that many people have of black women. Third, even though Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Lizzo look nothing alike, racists often think people of another race all look alike.
It’s at this get-together that Jasmine first hears about why the Belleville House dorm room she’s living in is reportedly haunted: A female student died there in the 1960s. Somehow, the legend of Margaret Millett got entangled in the story of this death, because there’s a story that Room 302 is cursed by this suspected witch. According to the story, the witch will show herself to a freshman student at 3:33 a.m. and take that student to hell.
Jasmine then starts to have nightmares, and she senses that a shadowy figure is following her on campus. It should come as no surprise that Jasmine goes to a library to do research about the student who died in the room. Jasmine finds out that the student who died in the room was an 18-year-old named Louisa Weeks, who was found dead of suicide by hanging in the room on December 4, 1965. Louisa was also the first black student at Ancaster College.
Gail starts to experience some strange things too. As a tradition, house masters get their portrait painted, and the painting is hung with the portraits of the other past and present house masters at Ancaster College. After she gets her portrait painted, Gail finds maggots and flies coming out of the painting. The movie’s jump scares aren’t very original, but “Master” keeps people in suspense about what will happen next.
Gail also experiences how race and racism affect the power structure and barriers in her own career at Ancaster College. At a faculty party, two white colleagues—Diandra (played by Talia Balsam) and Brian (played by Bruce Altman)—congratulate Gail on being named Ancaster College’s first black person to become a house master. Diandra’s and Brian’s titles aren’t mentioned in the movie, but they have more seniority and more power than Gail at Ancaster College.
In a racially insensitive remark, Diandra and Brian compare Gail to Barack Obama and laugh because they think it’s a clever joke. The way that Diandra and Brian go on and on about Gail breaking this racial barrier at Ancaster College, it’s clear that Brian and Diandra think it’s more important to congratulate themselves for looking “progressive” in being among the decision makers for Gail to get the house master job, instead of giving validation to Gail that she earned this position on her own merits, not because she was a “token” black hire.
In another scene, Diandra dictates over the phone to Gail about how Gail should write a speech for an upcoming event attended by numerous Ancaster College donors. It will be the first big event where Gail is formally introduced to donors as the college’s latest house master. Diandra wants the speech to be worded in such a way where Gail will sound like a subservient black employee who’s grateful to the Ancaster College “powers that be” for appointing her as the first black person in this position. Gail has to tactfully steer Diandra away from that verbiage and let Gail write a speech where Gail’s accomplishments and goals are the focus, not her race.
“Get Out” brilliantly lampoons this type of racial condescension from white people who want to project a “progressive liberal” image, but who secretly think people who aren’t white are inferior. “Master” doesn’t blend these issues with horror as well as “Get Out” does, but “Master” does show a black female perspective that was lacking in “Get Out.” Because women of color have to deal with racism and sexism, “Master” adeptly depicts how this double-edged sword of bigotry can be used against accomplished black women whose capabilities and intelligence are constantly questioned or underestimated.
Gail and Jasmine both experience racist micro-aggressions throughout the movie. When Jasmine goes to an on-campus party by herself, a white guy at the front door won’t let her in, and he says that the party is “at capacity.” Meanwhile, white students are seen going into the party with no one stopping them. Jasmine is allowed entry into the party only after one of Amelia’s friends named Katie (played by Noa Fisher) sees Jasmine and tells the racist at the door that Jasmine is with her.
After getting racist comments from Tyler, Jasmine changes her hairstyle from natural curls to straightened hair. She also stops dressing in casual street wear and starts to dress more like a preppy student, as if she wants to assimilate more into the so-called white elitist culture at Ancaster College. Observant viewers will also notice how Jasmine goes back to her original way of dressing and wearing her hair as she grows more disillusioned with Ancaster College.
“Master” also effectively shows that even among black people, allyship isn’t always guaranteed. A “blink and you’ll miss it” moment comes early on in the movie, when Jasmine is in a school cafeteria, and a black female cafeteria worker (played by Angela Grovey) gives Jasmine a very dirty look without saying a word to Jasmine. It’s indicative of the resentment that some working-class black people might have of other black people they assume are too “uppity” and “trying to be white” if they’re accepted into a predominantly white and elite institution.
And there’s an outspoken Ancaster College professor named Liv Beckman (played by Amber Gray), who wears her hair in African-styled braids. Liv constantly talks about race and considers herself to be a progressive social justice warrior. Liv has very different relationships with Gail (who is a colleague/peer) and Jasmine (who is a student) because of the power structure involved.
At the faculty party shown early on in the movie, Gail and and Liv have a private conversation outside, where Liv comments to Gail about how there are very few black women who are part of Ancaster College’s faculty: “Us sisters are an endangered species.” Liv invites Gail to go on a weekend getaway trip with her to Boston. Gail politely declines the offer. But eventually, Liv and Gail start to become friends and go on a short getaway trip together.
This friendship might cloud Gail’s judgment when she’s part of a committee evaluating whether or not Liv will get tenure at Ancaster College. Diandra, who is also on the committee, is skeptical that Liv is qualified for tenure, while Gail seems to vacillate over whether or not to support Liv in these committee discussions. This subplot of “will Liv get tenure or not” makes the movie a little clunky and distracting from the main plot.
Liv is extremely friendly to Gail, but the same can’t be said of how Liv treats Jasmine, who is one of Liv’s students in an English literature class. Liv gives the class an assignment to do a critical race analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which is about a woman who is publicly shamed for committing adultery. The challenge of this assignment is that all the characters in “The Scarlet Letter” are white; therefore, the book isn’t really about relations between different races.
In a classroom discussion of this assignment, Liv dismisses Jasmine’s ideas. But then, when a white British student named Cressida (played by Ella Hunt) essentially says the same things that Jasmine said just a few minutes earlier, Liv profusely praises Cressida for her comments. In a private student-teacher meeting between Liv and Jasmine, Liv tells Jasmine that she thinks Jasmine has trouble adjusting to the demanding nature of the class because Jasmine might be overwhelmed at being in a predominantly white environment.
Liv then continues to be dismissive of Jasmine, by assuming that Jasmine grew up in a predominantly black and poor area. In other words, Liv thinks that Jasmine is a “charity case” student. But then, when Jasmine tells her that she actually grew up in the (predominantly white) city of Tacoma, Washington, and Jasmine was president of her school class, Liv seems shocked and a little embarrassed that she made racist assumptions about Jasmine.
It doesn’t improve the relationship between Jasmine and Liv though. In fact, it seems to make to things worse. Jasmine confides in Gail about it, but Gail tries to stay neutral, since Liv has become Gail’s friend. However, Jasmine really begins to suspect that Liv is unfairly targeting her when Liv gives Jasmine the failing grade of “F” on her “Scarlet Letter” assignment, while Cressida gets a “B+” grade. Jasmine is so upset about it, that she files a formal dispute with the school’s administration.
Around the same time, Jasmine and Amelia start having conflicts with each other. Their relationship started off as cordial, but things eventually go downhill. There’s somewhat of a love triangle introduced in the story when Amelia tells Jasmine that she’s attracted to Tyler, but Amelia and Tyler are just “hanging out” and not officially dating. But then, something happens to reveal that Jasmine is attracted to Tyler too. Even though Tyler racially insulted Jasmine when they first met, her attraction to him is an indication that a part of her wants to fit in with this clique, even if the guy she wants to date probably sees her as inferior to him because of her race.
“Master” puts these types of subplots into the story in ways that make the movie a little cluttered. But there are some mystery elements that will keep people intrigued, including a couple of scenes where someone named Esther Bickert (played by Mary Catherine Wright) calls Gail on the phone to try to talk to Gail about her daughter Liz, who is at Ancaster College. Gail doesn’t know anyone named Liz Bickert, so she tells this mystery caller to contact the school’s directory department.
Meanwhile, Jasmine continues to have nightmares and appears to be sleepwalking. On more than one occasion, Jasmine wakes up from these nightmares in her room, with an alarmed Amelia telling Jasmine how Jasmine was acting strangely before Jasmine woke up. The nightmares get worse, of course. And so does the tension between Jasmine and Amelia, who starts to think that Jasmine is mentally ill.
One of the more surprising elements to “Master” is a plot twist that’s intriguingly dropped in the movie and then left to dangle unresolved. This plot twist was clearly inspired by a real-life controversial former professor. It’s a sudden turn in the movie’s story that could have been handled better, in terms of how certain characters react to this plot twist. Considering what the consequences would be if this shocking revelation happened in real life (and it has happened in real life), this plot twist just opens up more questions that the movie never answers.
Despite some of the clumsily plotted aspects of “Master,” the movie never gets too boring. “Master” seems a little torn in how much to focus on Gail and how much to focus on Jasmine. In the end, Gail is really the main protagonist, because she’s the title character. Gail has stronger and more emotional ties to Ancaster College than Jasmine does. It’s why Gail’s journey in this story is more fascinating than Jasmine’s journey. Gail has to rethink her longtime loyalty to a college that isn’t exactly the “safe space” that she thought it was.
All of the cast members give admirable but not outstanding performances. Hall (who is an executive producer of “Master”), Renee and Gray bring emotional authenticity to their roles that give “Master” the credibility that it has in depicting how life can be for black women at predominantly white academic institutions. The movie might help viewers better understand how racism can still be condoned and perpetuated, even by well-meaning white people who politically identify as liberals.
Most of the movie’s best scenes aren’t with the jump scares but in moments that show the similarities between racism and a horror story. There’s a scene where Gail is comforting Jasmine, who has become convinced that she’s being tormented by a ghost. “You can’t get away from it, Jasmine,” Gail says, “Believe me, I know.” Jasmine might be talking about a ghost, but Gail is talking about racism. Viewers might like or dislike the story in “Master,” but the main takeaway from the film is that racism is like a hateful ghost that haunts everyone, whether people want to admit or not.
Amazon Studios will release “Master” in select U.S. cinemas and on Prime Video on March 18, 2022.