Review: Master | Houston Press

Title: Master

Describe This Movie In One “My Old School” Lyric:

STEEL DAN: California tumbles into the sea / That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale

Brief Plot Synopsis: Ever thought of going to college on the West Coast?

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 2 FDRs out of 5.

Tagline: “This school is cursed.”

Better Tagline: “The only good witch…”

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: It’s a new school year at stately Ancaster College, where three women are facing their own individual set of struggles. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the first Black “master” of the college, while her friend Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) is seeking to join the overwhelmingly white tenured faculty. Meanwhile, Jasmine (Zoe Renee) just wants to get through her freshman year. As the year grinds on, the trio find themselves navigating hazards both human and superhuman (did we mention Ancaster is cursed?).

“Critical” Analysis: Recent years have seen a number of allegorical horror movies in which race is a thematic engine. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman being the most prominent examples. Writer/director Mariama Diallo now tries her hand with Master, with mixed results.

“Master” clearly has multiple connotations here, and well before the resolution of the local legend of Margaret Millett, the alleged witch who haunts the grounds, Gail and the others are forced to deal with racism both casual and institutional as it intersects with the background ghost story.

The movie telegraphs its scares early on. Jasmine’s residential house is poorly lit and creaky, while Gail’s place has a front door that opens of its own accord and still contains servant bells, creepy family photos, and even old “scientific” drawings comparing the skulls of apes and African-Americans.

It really seems like somebody would’ve had the good sense to throw all that away by now. Maybe the previous masters were hoarders as well as racists.

Something Master does very well is cataloguing the mounting outrage of the obstacles each women faces, which rise from the level of “death from a thousand cuts” to actual threats to life and limb. The nonchalant racism of Jasmine’s fellow classmates (alarming in its ubiquity) and Gail and Liv’s co-workers threatens to become overwhelming. And that’s not even counting the ghost stuff.

Diallo also examines the conflicts between the main characters, asking how much one should “go along to get along” versus taking a firmer (and therefore more dangerous) stand against these indignities. On its own, that aspect of Master might have been enough to make for a successful experience.

Unfortunately, Diallo is hellbent (no pun intended) on cramming in the paranormal element, and the resolution is less than satisfying. Rather than ending on a tragic and ambiguous note, we’re instead confronted with a ridiculous plot twist that introduces an unwelcome “ripped from the headlines” perspective.

The “throw everything against the wall” approach is effective in that it conveys an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere, but it also makes Master difficult to engage with even before that ending. If Diallo had fully committed to the former and the film’s final sense of futility instead of the half-assed horror elements, its impact would have been much greater.

Master is streaming on Amazon Prime Video today.

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