Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Master ★★★

Mariama Diallo’s debut feature Master blends horror with social critique as it examines occult scares as manifestations of the racial injustice taking place at an elite New England university built on the site of a Salem-era gallows. An intelligent dialogue delving into race, class and gender and atmospheric horror are held together impressively until the film’s scattered conclusion.

Writer-director Diallo tells the story of the lives of three women of colour at various stages in their academic careers at Ancaster College. Long-time academic Professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has been appointed house master, a sought after role at the University’s residence hall, welcoming new students including first-year fresher Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who struggles with the university’s cold unwelcoming presence, unsettling history, and apparent supernatural manifestations. Meanwhile literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) fights for tenure, navigating the politics and privilege of the university.

From its initial moments, Master’s genre fluidity is apparent with seeds of intrigue and mystery laid down as the university’s welcoming committee ominously chatter that fresher Jasmine “has got the room.” Alluding to the problematic history of the university, the imposing structure of the building (actually New York’s Vassar College) is shot capturing its stoic dominance by Director of Photography Charlotte Hornsby who minutely frames Jasmine and her fellow students against the structure giving a sense at the power of the establishment. Superstitions about the town’s supernatural past begin to creep in with hooded figures skulking around the grounds, ghostly shadows appearing, and stalking presences never far. The execution of these horror tropes is tightly crafted by Diallo – particularly impressive in a scene of the lights shutting down in the student showers and in an unnervingly tense sleep paralysis nightmare faced by Jasmine. These are never groundbreaking, but effective nonetheless.

Yet more uncomfortable than the supernatural elements is the manifestation of the various examples of racial discrimination and microaggressions faced by each of three leads in their respective experiences. Jasmine’s interactions with fellow students are rarely positive with a room full of white classmates launching into tirades of the n-word during rap track Black AGAVE at parties or labelling her as Nicki Minaj, Lizzo or Beyoncé. Jasmine’s unpleasant interactions with dinner ladies and Liv Beckman add to her sense of discomfort that prevails throughout her newfound academic life. Regina Hall’s Professor Bishop is feature in similarly uncomfortable scenes faced with Mammy cookie jars and compared to Obama as the first black house master, whilst Liv fights a near all white tenure board justifying her right to teach at the university.

Ancaster is a place that presents a façade of diversity and Master implies that its setting will never escape the racism embedded in its present and past and those that do not fit into its elitist white culture will meet their demise. Expansion into this past is seen in the two respective ghost stories of Master: Jasmine finding parallels in the story of Margaret Campbell a black girl driven to suicide in 1965 by white supremacists, whilst Gail’s residence is haunted by the spirit of a black maid. With countless threads and themes being explored in Diallo’s sharp script, tying these together becomes something of a challenge in the film’s convoluted conclusion that lead us to wonder if the film would be tighter simply focussing on Jasmine’s experience?

Master’s effective examination of the experiences of its three protagonists delivers an impressive sense of intellectual dialogue that far overshadows its moments of traditional horror exemplified perfectly as Gail shares the devastating line “It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural, it’s America, and it’s everywhere.”

Master plays as part of the Sundance film festival and will be released on Amazon on 18 March.