As a disabled adult in a world largely uninterested in becoming accessible, I have long been othered. I couldn't help but reflect upon my own experiences as I watched writer/director Mariama Diallo's impressive feature debut Master. Having premiered at Sundance, Master now arrives with Amazon Studios for a March 18th debut on Prime Video.
The dark, disturbing film centers around three women striving to find their place at an elite Northeastern university that offers up a sort of redemptive radical inclusion that now promises to forget a past that history won't so easily forget. Master haunts from its opening moments, the entrances of Gail (Regina Hall), Jasmine (Zoe Renee), and Liv (Amber Gray) all marked by a pronounced sense of otherness bleeding through the walls of this revered institution haunted by the ghosts of its past and present.
All three persevere, at times seeming to reach out toward one another yet never fully seeking connection because it would seem that there are forces at work that seek to deny it. Jasmine is at the core here, a rare Black scholar at a prestigious university now embracing inclusion yet undeniably built upon the haunted foundations of racism and submission. Her all-white welcoming committee reaches out with the sort of polished sheen that instantly feels uncomfortable, a discomfort magnified by word that her assigned room is one of the university's infamous haunted locales where she will reside alongside an entitled white roommate oblivious to her own entitlement.
Diallo taps into the existing horror of the story as it unfolds. There's no need to amplify it, not really, but Master finds those places often left underneath the surface and less visible to the naked eye. It's horror, there's no mistaking that, though it's less traditional horror and more deeply ingrained horror more grounded in truth than cinema. This is who we are - Diallo just makes us look at it.
Master practically submerges us in Jasmine's traumas, Charlotte Hornsby's cinematography enveloping the darkness and forcing us to, at times, squint toward light that may or may not exist. Desperate to survive and even thrive in this setting, Jasmine's increasing sense of alienation becomes our own even while her menace remains unidentified.
Jasmine's alienation is institutionalized, those who would proclaim inclusion surround her but the inclusion here never recognizes the necessity of equity and belonging, the monsters of the past far more powerful than symbolic gestures and faux inclusion. Jasmine may be present, but there is no inclusion.
Gail is, at least for now, the university's sole tenured Black professor and has recently been named a Master, or Dean of Students, the first Black in the school's history to hold the position. Yet, the deeper her immersion within the school's tapestry the more realizes a sense of tokenism that begins to dominate her even as Professor Beckman (Amber Gray) begins eyeing a tenure position despite some resistance from those concerned about her outspoken ways.
While Master utilizes the horror genre in its exploration of institutionalized racism, being neither the first nor likely last film to do so, it is more a suspenseful thriller than a true horror film as the horror lies in the story itself. Diallo dangles multiple threads here, some more successfully than others, and yet the lessons being displayed here are unforgettable in their haunting simplicity. Diallo's ensemble cast is exceptional here. Zoe Renee is mesmerizing as an incoming freshman practically swallowed up by her institution, while Regina Hall is simply stellar as the house Master who realizes this house to which she's devoted her professional life is haunted. Amber Gray rounds out the leading trio sublimely, though even the film's bit players remarkably capture the seamless tapestry of racism remains even after events have been set aside and old practices become new.
Diallo herself instantly becomes a filmmaker to watch with an impressive eye for both storytelling and visual imagery. Master looks jarringly beautiful, a sort of low-key Gothicism perfectly representing past and present and perhaps even future. The horrors here are deeply ingrained, social meeting supernatural into a cultural tapestry of doubt and instability fueling psychological traumas not easily erased but far too easily set aside. Master looks to be one of the year's most impressive feature debuts by a filmmaker.
Fearless and uncompromising, Mariama Diallo has given us a film that deserves to be remembered and even more so deserves to be acted upon.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic