Master [Sundance Film Festival Review]

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Master is like Get Out on a college campus, although it's not quite on the same level as Jordan Peele's acclaimed hit. The film wears its racial themes on its sleeve, and that's a good thing. We need this movie right now. We're living in a time when a percentage of people are trying to prevent the history of racism from being taught in schools. They're having books pulled from libraries. They're fighting against the very notion of teaching children that racism exists in this country. Writer/director Mariama Diallo's movie will enrage those people. That might just be my favorite quality about it.

The setting is Ancaster University, a college in New England. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the school's first Black dean of students. Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is a first-year student, and one of only eight students of color on the entire campus. Both women experience passive-aggressive treatment from others, based solely on the color of their skin. They also experience more overt kinds of horror. Gail discovers her new living quarters are infested with maggots. Jasmine, meanwhile, has been assigned to the room where a female student once killed herself. There's a rumor about a campus “witch” who steals the life of one person every year. As time goes on, her hallucinations grow more intense, causing her to wonder if she'll be the next victim. Gail and Jasmine find their lives intersecting, especially when Jasmine accuses Gail's friend, a Black professor named Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), of unfairly targeting her in class.

The basic concept of Master is that institutional racism is alive and well at Ancaster, and it has possibly morphed into something paranormal. Jasmine has multiple grisly nightmares after learning about the alleged witch. But is the legend real, or are the white students simply feeding into her anxiety, thereby causing her to have bad dreams? Diallo keeps us guessing, mixing events we know are real with ones that may be supernatural.

The movie never quite explains the ultimate connection between reality and paranormal as satisfyingly as it should, and a third-act plot twist – clearly inspired by a real-life news story from several years back – doesn't work at all. Nonetheless, Master has more than enough potent moments to get its point across loud and clear. One of the best scenes finds Jasmine attending a frat party. She's on the dance floor, surrounded by her fellow (white) students, all of whom are cheerfully and obliviously yelling along with a rap song that employs multiple uses of the N-word. That's chilling. Diallo uses red lighting to suggest menace in many sequences, so when we see the color starting to come into the frame, we automatically tense up.

Driven by strong performances from Hall and Renee, Master is not a subtle film, nor should it be. The entire reason it exists is to explore the horrors of racism as it exists today. Diallo's message is that institutional racism is so prevalent, so engrained in society, that people of color can't really feel safe anywhere. Even in supposed bastions of liberal education, it has a way of creeping in. That's a provocative idea, worthy of being considered. Placing that within the context of nightmares and witches and maggot-infested walls goes a long way toward conveying how scary it is that bigotry and intolerance still exist in any form in 2022.

out of four

Master is unrated, but contains adult language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.