In the limited but growing canon of post-“Get Out” Black horror, “Master,” which opens in theaters and Amazon Prime today, may be the most polarizing. “Master” is a statement movie, a cousin of sorts to Jordan Peele’s pivotal 2017 touchstone. Preachy but correct, Mariama Diallo’s debut feature plays with satire’s propensity for exaggeration but generally dispenses with the genre’s wit—leaving us with naked and uncompromised polemic about race in 2022.
It’s the first day of school at an elite Ivy League university, and budding freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is ready to have her horizons expanded. She happens to be the only Black person in her dormitory, and she doesn’t see any students who look like her around campus. But she earned her place in this hallowed institution of higher learning. She belongs here, doesn’t she?
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), the school’s first house master, finds herself in a similar position, nearly tokenized among the lily-white faculty. But it’s an honored position of authority, and she is determined to make her mark, despite the disturbing paraphernalia she finds when exploring her new residence—an Aunt Jemima figure tucked underneath a sink, some ugly buried research about African skull sizes—to say nothing of the locusts that seemed to have moved in with her.
Creepy shadows, terrifying nightmares, a pervasive legend about an on-campus witch: “Master” gradually accrues its share of familiar genre elements, delivered with a smattering of jump scares and an unnerving nails-on-a-chalkboard score. The mechanics of “Master” are more effective than not, but horror-film grammar is the means, not the end. The real horror is the shroud of white privilege that blankets the campus like a heavy fog.
For Gail and especially for Jasmine, the racism starts small and subtle. When a drink spills in the students’ house, it is assumed that Jasmine will clean up the mess. Her white peers try to exclude her from parties. Soon enough, hateful verbiage is found scrawled on the wall of her dorm, then someone hangs a noose on her door, then a cross is set ablaze outside her residence hall, activity that doesn’t exactly jibe with the university’s cheerfully branded new messaging on inclusiveness.
Diallo’s depiction of Black scholars in the white world of elite academia is one in which they are never comfortable. Threats are ever present. Looks of scorn and condescension greet them at every turn. Pernicious symbols of hate and subjugation endure, even in our most enlightened spaces. Surely, white reader, you believe that this cannot be so, especially on the woke campuses of Harvard and Yale and the other Ivies. But these are places with histories that date back to antebellum times—it’s hard to ignore the double meaning of “master”—with an institutional rot that can’t be replaced by a new coat of paint and a few rounds of DEI training.
“It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural. It’s America, and it’s everywhere,” Gail tells Jasmine, in the sort of resonant sound bite that mints a new screenwriting talent all by itself. “Master” is out to force uncomfortable conversations, not even necessarily to entertain us, which is why it dangles carrots of horror tropes only to pull them away just when we expect a paranormal crescendo. This is a film that refuses to please, and is all the braver for it.
“Master” is now playing at Cinemark Palace 20 and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, and Paragon Theaters in Delray Beach. It is also streaming on Amazon Prime.