Supernatural, societal issues masterfully converge in Mariama Diallo’s ‘Master’

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Contains spoilers for “Master”

Thrilling and terrifying, Mariama Diallo’s “Master” is a psychological horror that follows the lives of Jasmine (Zoe Renee) and Gail (Regina Hall) — respectively, a Black identifying student and a newly appointed, Black Master of Ancaster University, an esteemed, predominantly white establishment.

As Jasmine arrives on campus, she learns her dorm room is a place of interest. Rumored to be haunted by a malicious witch, who years ago killed another Black girl in the same room, her dorm room is also home to a popular, mean roommate.

As the film continues, Jasmine begins to receive racist, threatening messages and wakes up with scratches on her body. Terrified and increasingly consumed by thoughts of the witch, Jasmine spirals into isolation. What Diallo captures best about Jasmine’s arc is the convergence of all her challenges — her struggle to fit in and find friends, the casual racism that no one else seems to notice, the marks on her body — and how real each one of them feels.

The film’s second character of interest, Gail, fights her own remarkably similar battles. Gail’s position as the university’s new Master — a symbolic position given the word’s racist associations with slavery — brings on a whole new slew of problems. As Gail reckons with the only other Black professor’s possible tenure, she finds herself interrogated on implicit bias. Gail isn’t exempt from being haunted by the supernatural either, as her apartment is infested with maggots that creep up at her most vulnerable moments.

It is interesting to observe how the film handles Gail and Jasmine’s dynamic. Jasmine often runs to Gail for help — in one instance, to file an academic complaint about an unjust failing grade — and she soon becomes a victim of interest for both Gail and the rest of the faculty. Gail and Jasmine’s paths and struggles are similar, and Gail quickly feels responsible for Jasmine’s well-being and safety. It is compelling to watch how receptive Jasmine is to Gail’s words, how desperate she is for human guidance and companionship and how deeply Gail’s lived cynicism affects Jasmine.

One place “Master” finds strength is in clever yet subtle references to modern racism and racial discourse that balance the supernatural aspects of the film. Perhaps most glaring of these references is the character Liv Beckman, a Black professor who is later revealed to be a white woman who truly, deeply believes she is connected to Black culture and its experience. This rings eerily similar to the real-life story of Rachel Dolezal, a former instructor and activist who presented as Black but was later revealed to have grown up as a white woman from a white family. In subtler ways, Jasmine’s experiences of being asked to have her bag checked when leaving her university library or to have to prove that she in fact had opportunities to excel in high school are clear indications of her unique struggle.

The visual horror of “Master” is understated. There is some play with color in cinematography when Jasmine stays home over the break, but for the most part, the visual aspects are straightforward and effective. A witch’s singular, scraggly hand grabs and strokes Jasmine, or maggots crawl out of the eyes of a painting. The horror of “Master” is certainly more psychological, playing with Jasmine’s mind and focusing on what is obscured rather than what she or the viewer can directly see. Commendably, the script is tight and tracks its two characters carefully, never wasting time delving into painful backstory or rambling plot.

In many ways, “Master” is classic formulaic horror, yet its added precise, careful socio-political observations elevate the film. “Master” is one of many indications that the genre itself is shifting: As political discourse grows and becomes more nuanced in everyday life, horror films begin to reflect that, weaving in real-life, systemic fears with the supernatural. “Master” wins because of its simplicity, effectiveness and wit, serving as a great addition to modern-day horror.

Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].