Sundance 2022 Film #1
Mariama Diallo’s feature length directorial debut, Master, is a never ending psychological thriller of racism and sexism led by tormented performances by Regina Hall and Zoe Renee.
The film takes place at Ancaster College, a prestigious university in the New England area. It follows two Black American women, the Master of the school Gail (Regina Hall) and an incoming freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) as they make their new homes on the grounds of this educational institution. At a place where education is meant to inspire positive change, these two women are instead pushed to their absolute mental limits when the horrors of rich white historical discrimination is unleashed upon them.
The story is loosely broken up into what are essentially chapters, or rather an infectious comprehension of the bigger picture, with title screens that present a line of text relevant to the coming stretches of the film. Through this fluid journey the two women are reunited with the malicious presence that they have surely been battling since their births. It’s as if an old terrible friend from your past wants to just waltz back in as if they weren’t solely responsible for centuries of mistreatment. Racism, Sexism, the entirety of discrimination, how can universities be locations for educational progression when many of these insitutions were built on such a dark and horrific foundation? I think Master does a fine job reviving this narrative.
While the film is not packed with over the top crowd pleasing stretches of horror, something that is increasingly demanded from modern audiences, there are some truly terrifying moments pieced in that may go down as some of the best among films showing at Sundance 2022. The inclusion of the Witchy backstory seems like a necessary evil, only to add a tropey layer of horror to the story and another level of discrimination that the two leads face as women. Witches were just another group that was targeted by white supremacy so it makes sense.
It doesn’t always get its psychological strain across effectively but some of the best moments come from Jasmine’s nightmares. These experiences are born from her mere existence and fueled by the school’s dark past now threatening her accomplishments. Something that Gail also deals with, but from an older generation and much higher professional status. Gail is equally as tormented but her experience takes on more of a ghostly haunting rooted far deeper historically speaking.
In my favorite sequence of the film, Jasmine finds herself on a tour of her dormitory, drenched in neon red to symbolize its fiction, one by one a member of the all white group stares back at Jasmine until they make it to the end of her hallway to her own room. “Whos is that?” one member asks, “Oh that’s just a black student”. Then a figure appears at the window and reaches its long and grotesque hand inside, “Whats that?” “That’s what’s coming”. And whats coming is everywhere, it always has been.
Master presents us with no satisfying ending and this will surely turn off some. “It’s everywhere”, “Its not going to change,”. Just a cruel realization of an ever present always evolving belief. And so it should be clear that there just shouldn’t be some spectacular horror conclusion to drown out its memorandum. “It might not be white hoods or menstrals but it’s there. It’s like a ghost, you just can’t catch it and you can’t prove it,”. And instead the film returns firmly back on the ground where It’s 2022, a time where no matter how many racial injustices have undergone some societal repairs by those who truly want the best for everyone, progress made can and will always be haunted by the past. It’s still the black experience in the US. And that’s as real as it gets.
For Mariama Diallo’s first feature length film, she does a fine job adapting her own screenplay into a truly authentic tragedy on the screen that feels familiar.
In this regard, Master feels very much like an indie version of a Monkey Paw Production, which is nothing but a sincere compliment. The tropes are effectively applied and the themes are familiar. Diallos direction is precise, controlled and it stares directly into its horrors, the perfect combination for such a movie. But It’s clearly a product of a smaller production budget, so it suffers some in the entertainment department and it feels geared more for an at-home streaming presence, and not some theatrical release that is draped with the Hollywood treatment.
Master should find a nice home for itself on Amazon Prime when it debuts sometime this Spring.