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Master ★★★★



Director: Mariama Diallo

Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Grey

Release: TBC

Being the Master of a prestigious New England university sounds like an ideal promotion. Especially if you are a black woman and subject to intersectionality, such a role would undoubtedly elicit a sense of recognition and achievement for yourself and your communities. That is the case for Gail Bishop, as the newly installed Master and the first black woman to hold such a post at Ancaster College. Gail’s feelings of pride in her new role understandably flourish, at least until the discovery is made that such promotion is likely to have been tokenism in a performative attempt to display diversity within such an institution. The microaggressions and the hidden prejudice embedded within that elite educational institution initially shock but do not surprise Gail. Master’s perturbing message of the everyday horrors of subtle racism endured, alongside the subtle persecution of a new black female student, Jasmine Moore, to whom Gail feels subconsciously protective, unfold at a leisurely pace. Equally, Gail’s colleague, Liv Beckman, faces her own battle for job recognition with racial motivations.

Master’s themes are prevalent and steer the film’s narrative, which means that whilst its intentions are ambitious and insightful, the film is let down by the uneven execution of its storyline in some of the key scenes. This limitation may also be connected to the genesis of Master from a short story, so, unfortunately, the film tends to rely on jump scares solely to convey the terrors facing Jasmine.

It’s is an unsettling, slow-paced examination of these women’s struggles in their ongoing battle against institutionalised prejudices and stereotypes. The film’s embrace of established horror tropes representing this battle employs imagery with edits of dark, isolated corridors, sinister red lightings and that sense of isolation, which may provoke casual comparisons to Get Out. However, Mariama Diallo’s fascinating directorial debut explores that sense of isolation that intersectionality creates further. There may be black men present in Master, but, within a female lens, they are silent, and so their voices are not heard, which underlines the necessity for the voices of these black women to be amplified.  

The films’ horror devices may not be state of the art and are reminiscent of old-fashioned special effects. It is suspected that they are instead intended to serve as that inner manifestation of the racial pressure in effect. There may be side glances, comments about natural hairstyles, being left out of important meetings or other insidious remarks that perpetuate that sense of ‘other’ and make day to day interactions within various institutions a daily horror for black women.

Diallo’s direction, therefore, cleverly explores the actual or perceived terror that black women are likely to encounter for being the ‘only one in the room.’ Their experiences are questioned and disbelieved, and Master demonstrates that need that all three women encounter to prove their ability to ‘fit’ into the establishment mould and discount any harassment directed their way.

Master is never didactic in exploring these microaggressions, preferring to immerse the audience within the ordeal of the characters with both Regina Hall, as Gail, and Zoe Renee, as Jasmine, delivering standout performances within their expressions of terror. Diallo’s film gets under the skin with this delivery but cannot truly be described as a horror with its interweaving of social commentary and may disappoint dedicated horror fans. Instead, it is a nuanced film that may reveal a multi-faceted examination of insidious racist practices.

It has a lot to say but allows the narrative to unfold naturally. Disturbingly, the film hints that history may be repeating itself and that true change may never occur at such institutions where practices are recycled amongst staff. This is especially true as the status quo is maintained with ‘like-minded’ persons hired within such elite establishments. The film also touches upon the agenda of those embarking on cultural appropriation to serve their own interests and the practice of fulfilling diversity quotas. It truly resonates and seeks to scare its audience with the horror of a black woman’s reality;  the film’s beauty lies in forcing the audience to confront this reality.

Diallo’s film has an impact is a haunting but poignant reflection of microaggressions and racial harassment. The film unpacks many topics and plays on the horror genre to lull audiences into a false sense of security before defying expectations. The film dares its audience to pose uncomfortable questions and hold institutions accountable when entrenched prejudices are exposed. This unnerving aspect of Master will be the most effective to provoke inner reflection. This may truly be the only way in which change is instilled, and films such as Master will be a useful tool to guide the changing landscape towards race to avoid the repetition of past practices.

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