Let’s start here: Master, written and directed by Mariama Diallo, is a film with ambitious scope and intention. That it does not quite succeed in its endeavors is certainly a disappointment. My goodness, is there a lot going on here. At an elite New England university, Gail (Regina Hall) accepts a new position as “master” (dean) of students. Meanwhile, freshman student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) does her best acclimating to a new setting and roommate. Meanwhile, a politically minded literature professor (Amber Gray) who tells students to “just call me Liv” is being reviewed for tenure. All three are Black women wrestling with being ostracized, prejudiced against, and patronized to. Sometimes all at once by those who “would’ve voted Obama for a third term.”

The tone Diallo attempts striking in Master is purposely fluid. At first glance a horror picture, it often settles into something more like a social drama, then a psychological piece, before a scene of dread brings us back. The genre elements work well enough, though scares are few and far between. Hall, the ostensible lead, is certainly up for the challenge and does reliably strong work throughout. Renee and Gray are less successful, but then their characters are more scattershot, both with backstories that are enticing but distracting. Even confusing in spots. Much like the film as a whole, it seems overcooked and undercooked at the same time.

There are plenty of creepy aesthetics and subplots to underline the more overt metaphors: maggots that rot within the walls of the new master’s university home; a nearby settlement of Salem-esque witches who linger too close to campus; the disturbing university legend of a young freshman who jumped out of her dorm window. What becomes clear within the narrative is that racism is everywhere. It is inescapable. Be it the privileged white students in the dormitory, the celebrated past university leaders’ paintings hanging in the halls, or the almost exclusively white tenure panel. It all means something, ultimately not enough as a whole. None of it meshes particularly well, instead playing like two or three separate shorts rather than one feature.

Hall does her damndest to keep it in focus, but by Master‘s third act it all begins crumbling. Characters make decisions that betray their intelligence while plot twists serve to connect multiple threads to no avail. In particular a culminating sequence (following a shocking turn of events) wherein all emotions are voiced plays as overblown and on-the-nose.

Whatever the heavy criticism in the above paragraphs, Diallo is clearly talented and renders some effective, tense moments. An early scene in which Gail is forced to endure the “good-intentioned” backward-thinking compliments of her colleagues (played brutally well by Talia Balsam and Bruce Altman) comes to mind. There’s also an underexplored student-teacher relationship that percolates between Liv and Jasmine, bracingly complex and provocative but then mostly abandoned. Master is ultimately undone by overreach.

Master premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and arrives on Amazon Prime on March 18.

Grade: C

No more articles