MASTER (2022), a new horror movie by first time writer/director Mariama Diallo, and now available on Prime Video, is GET OUT (2017) without the over-the-top horror elements thrown in at the end.
Diallo’s screenplay is subtle, deliberate, and at the end of the day, genuinely brilliant. Its point, like the actions shown in this movie, is that racism in the United States is pervasive, persistent, and so ingrained it becomes barely noticeable if you’re not paying attention, and worst of all, it’s never going to change. This final point, which is difficult to swallow, makes this movie a very uncomfortable experience. It’s also difficult to argue with the film’s main premise.
MASTER tells the story of three women of color at a prestigious New England university. There’s Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) who has just accepted the position of house master for one the dorms, meaning she’s not only a tenured professor at the school, but also an advisor and confidant to the students living in her building. She’s the first black house master, a fact she tries to play down, saying she’d rather be known as another in a long line of women house masters, but her fellow white tenured professors refuse to let her downplay the notion. Their attitude towards her, while not blatantly disrespectful, rubs her the wrong way, as she… and she can’t put her finger on it… feels at times as if she’s viewed as nothing more than a maid or a servant, and other times she feels the university only wants to celebrate her blackness because it’s good for the school to be viewed as diverse, two points that are handled honestly in Diallo’s screenplay.
Then there’s freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who has the most difficult time of the three. She has to deal with things like a professor assuming she’s come from an underprivileged neighborhood, different attitudes shown her by the friendly black cafeteria worker who gives her the cold shoulder, as well as hate messages written on her door, and worst of all, a noose strung up inside her room. These are incidents that house master Gail takes seriously, but she can’t seem to get her fellow tenured professors to see these acts as anything more than just typical college kids’ pranks. At the end of the day, Gail advises Jasmine to stay at the school and tough things out, a decision that ends tragically, and starts Gail on a journey of self-awareness.
Then there’s the story of the witch. Evidently, the university is haunted. Years ago, a witch was hung close to the grounds of the school, and she cursed the institution, and it’s said that every few years or so she comes back to claim the life of a freshman and drag her down to hell. In fact, a girl committed suicide in the very room in which Jasmine now lives. Fellow students go full throttle in detailing this legend to Jasmine, and although they mean it as a joke, Jasmine is greatly affected by the story. As threats to her well-being mount, she can’t help but think it’s the witch coming to get her.
Lastly, there’s Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who is up for tenure but is facing stiff resistance because she hasn’t published much, and also, she is the subject of an investigation into her dealings with Jasmine, as the student has accused her of treating her unfairly. When Gail speaks supportively of Liv, she is asked if she can be impartial, a question which immediately makes Gail think the questioning professor is referring to the fact that both women are black. She asks the professor directly what she means, and the woman answers she meant because Gail and Liv are best friends, which is true. Gail then changes her tune and speaks more critically of Liv’s candidacy.
All three actors are excellent. Regina Hall gets the most screen time of the three as house master Gail Bishop. It’s an intriguing role, as Gail evolves as the movie goes along. She is at first happy to be house master, but as things continually get under her skin, she begins to ask questions. And after Jasmine’s plight, Gail’s eyes are opened, and she’s the character who realizes the depths of which racism exists and that it’s just not going to change.
Zoe Renee is perfect as the troubled Jasmine. Confident and brilliant at first, she is driven to doubt and despair as the events around her relentlessly poke and prod until she becomes unglued. By far, Jasmine has the saddest story arc.
Amber Gray as Liv Beckman completes the trio. Beckman wants tenure so bad she is willing to lie to get it, but the depth of that lie is misunderstood by Gail who mistakenly believes her friend told a major untruth rather than a more subtle omission of a past life.
I would imagine that MASTER (2022) would struggle to find a large audience. Marketed as a horror movie, the horror elements, while there, in the form of the story of the witch’s curse, are downplayed and are not the main focus of the movie. MASTER works much better as a drama, and as such, soars, even though it is definitely a slow-burn story. It’s one of those movies that almost doesn’t work until the end credits roll, and then you look back and think about what you just saw, and you get it.
So, the true star of MASTER is writer/director Mariama Diallo. The script is quietly masterful. The best part is that the characterizations and situations never go over the top, become cliche, or even all that clear. Diallo makes it so the audience, like main character Gail, feels that something isn’t quite right, that somehow things are off, and yet we just can’t put our finger on what that something is. But it’s racism. And it’s not the in-your-face KKK racism of the deep South, but the quiet nuanced racism of the so-called progressive side of society, folks who say they support diversity, but what they say and do is a different matter. A phrase here, a gesture there, an assumption over there, things that normally aren’t associated with racism but at the end of the day are still attitudes which divide over race.
I thought the screenplay was brilliant. By the time the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a movie that while it’s not without flaws was able to say something poignant about race without being overhanded or trite.
And if its premise is accepted as true, then the story told in MASTER is certainly a horror tale for our time.