In the years following Jordan Peele’s breakout hit Get Out, horror films and programs starring and made by Black people have become less of a novelty and more of a box office and streaming staple, given the critical and financial success of the 2017 Oscar-winning flick. But so far, Hollywood’s embrace of similar projects hasn’t produced tremendous results. Whether it’s television shows like the unflinching Them and the ham-fisted Lovecraft Countrypoorly conceived films such as Antebellum and Bad Hairor the undercooked 2021 reboot of Candymanthis onslaught of new material hasn’t exactly lived up to the ample possibilities that horror noire has to offer.
That’s why the advent of a film like Master, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and arrives Friday on Prime Video, feels so exciting. Mariama Diallo’s first feature stands out as one of the most intellectually ambitious contributions to the post-Get Out Black-horror canon yet. Even discussing the film in proximity to Peele’s directorial debut (which I’ve become less impressed with over time) feels slightly reductive, given that the comedian-turned-auteur didn’t invent the genre. And considering how many Black horror filmmakers are waiting to be given mainstream opportunities, it feels too early to cement his offerings as a lone benchmark. Diallo’s film proves this point, as she pushes ideas of race, gender, colorism, representation, and exceptionalism to the fresher, more interesting places and illustrates these grim realities onscreen in a way that feels less accessible or even appealing to white viewers.
The 90-minute film follows the parallel narratives of two Black women at a prestigious, primarily white New England college where they’re both physically and emotionally haunted—not just by apparitions and witches, but feelings of isolation and the burden of representation. Jasmine Moore, played by Zoe Renee, is a new student whose presence on the frigid, unwelcoming grounds of Ancaster College is immediately met with trouble when she’s greeted by a white freshman counselor. “We got a live one!” the counselor squeals as she approaches with her clipboard. Most of the interactions we see between Jasmine and the white people on campus don’t automatically make us think she’ll be knifed to death in a dorm shower, as that early remark suggests. Instead, she experiences a version of racism that most Black people and people of color would unfortunately consider mundane, and there’s a lack of overtly offensive caricatures to hit us over the head with their ignorance.
Even so, Diallo manages to escalate the tension with each of these “casual” encounters and “microaggressions.” The scenes where Jasmine is hanging out with her white roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder) and her white fellow students are especially uncomfortable to watch. For the most part, her white “friends”—if you can even call them that—aren’t outrightly rude to her so much as they begrudgingly tolerate her presence. There’s also a claustrophobic scene at a party where she’s surrounded by fratty white guys aggressively rapping to Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” which features several N-words. Magnifying Jasmine’s queasiness about her relationships with her peers is the fear that she’s the next target of a ghost, a woman named Margaret Mittell who was killed during the Salem Witch Trials. According to Ancaster lore, Margaret returns to the campus on the anniversary of her death at 3:33 am to kill one ill-fated new student.
It feels pointed, in a film that portrays the uneasy connections between Black women and white women, that Master‘s main specter is a white victim of gendered violence. The type of white feminist touting the slogan “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” has become its own recognizable, heavily mocked archetype in liberal politics and, more specifically, on liberal college campuses post-Trump. The interplay of that history, the images of the colonial and modern witch, and the school’s rich setting is another fascinating and curious aspect of the film.
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop, played by Regina Hall with her usual aplomb, is managing her own internal crisis and lingering suspicions upon accepting a job as Ancaster’s first Black housemaster. While she presents a proud, enthusiastic disposition to her non-Black colleagues at the start of the film, she experiences a growing sense of skepticism and disillusionment when she’s alone staring at paintings of white, male, probably slave-owning figures and as she listens to her co-workers discuss diversity in the most banal terms. Still, because of her own rare success story within academia, she holds tight to these empty notions of representation and her proverbial “seat at the table.” When Jasmine seeks Gail’s counsel, as her time at Ancaster becomes more anxiety-inducing, Gail feeds the student these bromides, advice that literally comes back to haunt her.
For me, the most unnerving parts of Master aren’t when we see a gaunt, ghostly hand appear from under a bed, a hallway washed in red light, or when Jasmine stands before a mirror alone in a bathroom. The visual techniques and sonic cues intended to make the audience jump are, at times, tipid and obvious. There’s an understandable trepidation in inflicting violence on Black female protagonists throughout the film, especially at a time when these images are thoughtlessly circulated. In that way, Master succeeds more as a psychological thriller or maybe the more obsolete “suspense” movie, as opposed to something built around visual scares. Diallo creates a more tense atmosphere relishing in moments of questioning, doubt, and nagging certainty about the things we can sense but never perceive with our eyes.
“Diallo creates a more tense atmosphere relishing in moments of questioning, doubt, and nagging certainty about the things we can sense but never perceive with our eyes.”
Speaking of Master‘s ambiguity, there’s another emerging Black woman, a professor being considered for tenure named Liv (Amber Gray), whos from the margins later on in the film in an unexpected turn, making for a compelling final act and possibly providing some missing puzzle pieces . It feels risky including a plot point that is so timely and ripped straight from the headlines. But Diallo’s show-don’t-tell approach with much of the film’s political commentary allows this moment to play out in an organic, uncontrived manner.
all in all, Master makes for an enthralling, cerebral viewing experience that sticks with you afterward and sparks intriguing, granular conversations—not just awareness about the realities it depicts, like many of these recent horror films and TV shows feel designed to do.
And if not for the obvious reducing factors this film’s odds for serious awards contention next year, Hall would have a strong Best Actress bid. With her role as Gail, she proves, once again, that she’s a true Hollywood chameleon with an endless well of verve and vulnerability. Over the past few years, it’s been exciting watching the 51-year-old acting veteran bounce from the 2018 indie comedy Support The Girls to Showtime’s now-cancelled Black Monday to being one of the only good parts of Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, and even going on to co-host the Oscars later this month. But, as Master reminds viewers, an increase in visibility doesn’t always equate to the level of accolades and acknowledgment society grants white people. Hopefully, this performance sees a different outcome.