The monsters on campus aren’t quite as scary as those in Black Christmas or Sorority Row, but they’re nonetheless an insidious presence in Master, as discriminatory remnants at a tony longtime girls’ school’s past continue to haunt the lives of modern students. This first feature from writer-director Mariama Diallo has a veneer of intelligence, class and noble purpose that separates it from most films about a “haunted” anything. Unfortunately, despite its brainy dialogue and sometimes comic approach, the film is also preachy and obvious in its point-making, which will go down well with the like-minded but might feel heavy-handed and familiar to others. After its Sundance Film Festival bow tonight in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, Master will go out into the world on Amazon Prime.
Diallo’s short film Hair Wolf won a jury award at Sundance 2018, while her more recent short, White Devil, hasn’t been heard from since it showed at Toronto last year. Most of the cast and crew on the new feature were women and exteriors were shot at Vassar College, a former all-female school that very closely resembles the establishment where the action takes place, here dubbed Ancaster College.
At the center of things is Professor Gail Bishop (the redoubtable Regina Hall), a life-long academic who now enjoys the distinction of having been promoted to Master of the residence hall. Enthusiastic and excited by her new opportunity, which has never been accorded to any Black woman before, she’s also nervous about it, and with good reason, to be sure.
Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is a typically upbeat and excited freshman, as well she might be except for the fact that she’s been assigned to the “haunted” room, which has a notorious history of suicides, beginning with that of the first Black female ever admitted to the school years earlier. For reasons of her own, literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) has it out for Jasmine and fails her in class, which predictably sends the student’s morale plummeting.
To put it mildly, this much sought-after school is revealed to be a supremely malevolent institution that at best threatens and at worst eradicates those not fitting into the privileged white upper class. On the plus side, Diallo has a fair amount of fun with the ironies related to the institution’s past and present, and the main performers nicely handle some of zingers that the writer packs into her dialogue.
All the same, once the gates are opened, the writer-director seems required, both by nature of the film’s format and its ideological arguments, to take the story to its limits, which doesn’t really feel like a proper fit even in this film’s purposely exaggerated scenario. As the situation becomes more dire, Diallo’s tale travels beyond the fanciful to the outer limits; some will no doubt find this all perfectly plausible, while others will see a dramatic derailment.
Not helping matters is Diallo’s uncertain control of the comic tone, which starts well but becomes increasingly inconsistent as the story charts a course for deeper waters. This is a story laden with ghosts, which naturally leads to the question of whether we are stuck with them forever or can they eventually be cast off. Her frequent jousts of humor notwithstanding, Diallo insinuates that the past is always with us, and she uses this grim period of history to argue her case. But can Master be enjoyed despite this? Only up to a point.