DIRECTOR: Mariama Diallo

CAST: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray, Ella Hunt, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Bruce Altman

RUNNING TIME: 91 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A trio of African-American women (Hall, Renee and Gray) share disturbing encounters at a prestigious, all-white college…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Racism, as it has been forever, is a horrifying reality. Even in the present-day, we are still seeing chilling stories about how institutionalised prejudice has become embedded within fabrics of our society as a permanent stain that will never go away, no matter how much most of us want it to. It’s immoral, reprehensible, and for a legion of Black horror filmmakers it has become a very important topic to base their own terrifying tales upon, from Jordan Peele’s Get Out to last year’s Candyman reboot by Nia DaCosta, and now writer-director Mariama Diallo gives it an intriguing new spin with Master.

Diallo’s chilling, if not entirely subtle, debut feature is set at the fictional Ancaster college, said to have been the alma mater for at least two Presidents and a whole bunch of Senators. Its reputation as a prestigious and heavily elitist facility is evident, but underneath are disturbing legends such as that of a witch who was hanged onsite centuries ago, and even more concerning is that it is practically all-white, among both students and faculty. Our story focuses on the alarmingly few Black women to set foot on campus: there’s Gail (Regina Hall), a scholar who has just been appointed as the new “master” of one of the university’s constituent houses, and is also the first Black female to achieve such a position; then there’s Liv (Amber Gray), a seasoned academic who is now up for tenure; and finally, there’s freshman student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) who, beyond simply not fitting in with her white colleagues, is plagued by haunting visions of said witch, who was said to have killed another Black student living in Jasmine’s room back in the 60s. All three, in their own way, become tied to the overbearing myths surrounding the college’s unnervingly racist past, which – as they slowly, and sadly, discover – doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

Fair play to Diallo, for she certainly is going into this film knowing exactly what she wants to say. Her script lays out her themes and topics almost immediately, to a point where an infant could identify what the subtext is, and makes almost zero concessions when it comes to addressing the main concerns upfront. Likewise, her direction keeps the pace going at a comfortably sinister level, not falling into familiar horror trappings like loud musical stingers whenever something creepy happens (although the fake-out dream sequence is still very much present), and allowing the cinematography to create an uneasy sense of tension with a bunch of far-away shots and ones that make certain buildings look like they’re located on the outskirts of Hell. It is a very well-made film, with certain lighting also doing well to highlight the unnerving atmosphere amidst the predominantly white wine-and-nibbles gatherings, and its lead trio of actors – particularly Regina Hall, in perhaps the furthest away from her regular comedy roles she has gotten yet – all doing well to earn empathy (to a point) from the sheer amount of awkwardness they are forced to encounter around practically every corner.

That being said, Master is probably going to be a divisive film amongst audiences – and not in the ways that you may be thinking. While it certainly has plenty to say about important topics like institutionalised racism, it’s one of those movies that is so consumed with its message and how it is delivered, that it tends to ignore a number of other factors that make it a much stronger film in general. There are plenty of times when characters, including our leads, end up doing some really dumb things as per horror movie logic, and despite some creepy shots and atmosphere it’s not a particularly scary movie, especially during a final reel that goes a little too far with one particular twist, but the film is far too concerned with preaching about its core social issues to properly take notice of its other, more glaring holes. Even the way its message is spread contains all the subtlety of a jackhammer to the face, especially as we see white students openly calling attention to Jasmine’s skin colour (she’s called everything from Beyoncé to a Williams sister when a bunch of them first meet her) and proudly singing along to a rap song with heavy N-word drops at a party. Ironically, Justin Simien’s satirical comedy Dear White People – which is basically Master, but funnier – adopted a far more subtle approach to its commentary on all-white college societies than this horror movie does, whereas for all her clear talent as a filmmaker Diallo often struggles to contain her message within a fragile narrative.

Again, it’s easy to see this movie receiving a mixed reaction from audiences, because while there’s a fair amount to appreciate with the filmmaking and the acting, its hands-on approach to a very delicate subject matter may have some waxing nostalgic for similar and overall better movies like Get Out instead. It’s decent enough, but given the ambition that Diallo clearly has burning within her, it is also a little underwhelming that she couldn’t do more to make her message more effective.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Master is a well-made horror that boasts some chilling cinematography and strong lead performances, but an all-too heavy fixation on its overarching themes of institutionalised racism allow for more than a few cracks to show in its less than stable narrative.

Master is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

It is also available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

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