Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master finds horror in academia

Set in a university built on a Salem-era gallows hill, the film has deeply gothic sensibilities.

Most of us who have been subjected to the pressures of academia know that it can be a real horror show. Few of us have ever imagined turning the consistent humiliations, insistent elitism and insurmountable pressures into a horror movie. With Master, her feature debut, Mariama Diallo mines acamedia for horror as two Black women strive to find their place at an elite New England university built on a Salem-era gallows hill.

From the beginning, the film has impressive sound and visuals. It has deeply gothic sensibilities and draws on colour and darkness to create mood. The atmosphere is palpable and anxious, mainly as we follow the youngest character, Jasmine (Zoe Renee), as she navigates the pitfalls of starting at a new high-performing school and grappling with the racial tensions of the school’s primarily white student body. The anxieties of youth seem to set the scene, though her storyline is far from the most interesting.

Yet, the cracks in the seams quickly become apparent. The film often feels disjointed narratively, and thematically the metaphors and allegories are confusing. The three storylines don’t quite fit together comfortably. Regina Hall, one of our greatest working actors, brings pathos and conflict to Gail’s transition from professor to “master” and the pressures that come from it. The film examines how Black bodies and Black lives navigate traditionally white spaces and how en vogue, white liberal ideas of diversity come to represent new forms of servitude and compliance for non-white people. 

The parallelism of Gail and Jasmine, two generations of Black women grappling with the anxieties of navigating white power structures, makes for a compelling backbone. Still, the film often loses focus on the essentials. As micro (and macro) aggressions pile up, as witches turn into mobs turn into ghosts, the film takes on a bit of a kitchen-sink mentality, throwing as much as possible to the wall to see what sticks. While the different horror elements all amount to the same engagement with the “ghosts of history,” it still feels fragmented. The movie nonetheless holds a lot of power in its ability to question the sustainability of universities built on slavery and oppression. 

Gail and Jasmine are not the only Black characters in the environment. The ambitious and charismatic Liv (Amber Gray) is a beloved professor seeking tenure. She acts as a foil to Jasmine’s adjustment and represents an opportunity to virtue-signal their diversity for the school board. Her presence in the film is almost immediately thorny, her “performance” of Blackness often existing in direct conflict to both Gail and Jasmine. As the screw tightens, Liv’s presence becomes increasingly uncomfortable within the narrative, challenging the audience’s assumptions and comfort levels.

The movie is chock-full of engaging and confrontational ideas with a compelling backdrop. It’s just a shame they don’t coalesce, and the fragmented nature of the story is more alienating than engrossing. The ending may be shocking in terms of developing ideas and characters, but it’s very deflated when it comes to genre practices. Mariama Diallo succumbs to a pitfall that many novice filmmakers find themselves in: doing a little too much when a more pared-down narrative would have served the scares and the characters better. 

Overall, Master shows a lot of potential but doesn’t quite hit the mark. The film’s visuals and sound are astonishing, and Regina Hall delivers a nuanced and complex performance. There’s no question that Mariama Diallo’s a filmmaker to watch, and the movie remains a fascinating if flawed engagement with race within academia. 

Master, directed by Mariama Diallo

The Master is streaming on Prime Video.

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