‘Master,’ a Thriller With Twists, Athena Film Festival
In Master written and directed by Mariama Diallo, the horrors of the past combine with present-day horror to gyrate into a memorable thriller with twists. The film screened at Athena Film Festival and SXSW.
Starring Regina Hall as Professor Gail Bishop, Zoe Renee as Freshman Jasmine Moore and Amber Gray as Professor Liv Beckman, Diallo presents three women of color. Each must find her own way to success at an elite New England university. Only one of the three succeeds. The reason why is disclosed by the conclusion.
Three Women of Color at an Elite University
Diallo opens with Jasmine who arrives at the campus welcomed by a student who intimates that she got “the room.” Later Jasmine discovers the legend about a woman hanged for being a witch. Part of the legend’s spin is that the university site is a Salem era gallows hill.
In macabre fashion, the “witch” picture hangs with other white Puritan ancestors/donors of the university. For whatever reason, the university perhaps views the woman as a martyr and eschews her dark and violent end. But the legend abides on the campus and underclassmen are tantalized by it as upperclassmen share the story abundantly so every student knows it.
Jasmine remains submerged in the legend and the hanging. Increasingly, she feels uncomfortable. Spooked by discussion that the witch forced a girl to jump to her death, Jasmine begins having nightmares. Her roommate and friends remain coolly distant and provide no help to make her feel accepted or comfortable.
The Dean Discovers a History of Racism on the Campus
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop enjoys the privilege of her position as “Master,” the dean of students. Though warmly welcomed by colleagues and students, she too must confront a terror which is in her beautiful but darkly lit residence. When Gail attempts to clean out some of the storage areas, she discovers the history of servitude and slavery in pictures left in shoe boxes.
Though her exalted position as a black woman makes her proud of her achievement to be appointed dean, in the artifacts she finds the unpleasantness of racism and servile abuse that existed in the house decades before. This is the site the official board of the university gave her to adopt as her home, but no one thought to clean out the storage areas. Is there an underlying message they are relaying? The pictures and weird, creaking noises stoke her fears. She visits her colleague Liv Beckman for comfort.
Meanwhile, something curious is happening with Jasmine in her classes. Though she achieved As in Tacoma, Washington and graduated as the Valedictorian, on the issue of critical race theory, she disagrees with Professor Liv Beckman. Beckman suggests that The Scarlett Letter has great racial bias and claims that the novel may be used to understand the racism in the setting and characters. Jasmine opposes that in open discussion. After she writes a paper expressing her views, she receives an F. Asking other students their grades, Jasmine determines that Beckman targeted her, so she files a complaint letter suggesting Beckman lacks competence.
The Women of Color are on Campus to Represent “Inclusion”
Ironically, Beckman represents as a black woman who college officials hired to show they support “inclusion.” Jasmine and Gail are all there for the same reason, to reveal how open and accepting the university is toward women of color. Thus, Jasmine’s accusation against Beckman appears contradictory and weird as does Beckman singling out a “sister.” Instead of unity between two black women, division overshadows them. What is the spirit that causes this?
The complexity deepens when the professors challenge Beckman’s receiving tenure because she hasn’t published. Caught between supporting her “sister” and being objective, Gail brings up the letter of complaint Jasmine filed against Beckman. It appears that Liv will have to leave. The unity that should exist among all three women has been shattered. To appear objective and just, Gail feels forced to tell her colleagues who will vote on Liv’s tenure about Jasmine’s letter of complaint.
Master’s Terror Shifts From Legends to Realities
Diallo then ratchets up the revelations of racial bias on the campus among the student body. Terrifying events occur that seem strange on a New England campus that appears to support diversity. However, the university had a vile history of a racism even in the 1960s which Jasmine uncovers doing research in the library. The perpetrators were never found in the lynching of a black woman student. Was this the work of the witch or a ghoul? Or did the murderer or murderers have white faces?
Using lighting, camera angels, pacing and interesting cinematography, Diallo creates mystery and suspense tying in the legends of the witch with a cult that meets in the woods and the lynching of the black woman student. After Jasmine discovers the hate crime, something becomes unleashed. Her discovery becomes the turning point. Racism on the campus becomes overt. Jasmine and Gail are targeted. Beckman, Jasmine and Gail attempt to help each other. However, sadly, the help never makes a difference.
The lines blur between imagination and truth
In the last half of the film Diallo stuns with unexpected twists. At one point, I thought the film to be sophomoric because Diallo cleverly misdirects her audience. Manipulating our understanding, she blurs the lines between the characters’ imaginations, nightmares and reality without clear delineation. And then she slowly reveals what we anticipate is the truth, but it isn’t. She keeps us guessing. Indeed, the opaqueness remains vital to the mystery, horror and shocking events that occur by the conclusion.
When brutality arrives, it devastates. The victim and the viewers who identify experience the fullness of the traumatic events.
Thematically, Diallo’s work clearly focuses on empathy. Allowing others to experience the shock of trauma puts the audience in the shoes of those abused, of those who experience racism’s terror on a visceral level.
When Terror Comes There is no Going Back
Once the characters sustain that terror, there is no going back. Certainly, political discrimination, white privilege and historical racism are undercurrents which Gail finally realizes permeate the university. And institutional racism floats everywhere and terrorizes like a ghost ubiquitously. It’s on the campus. It’s in the nation. Diallo proves that Gail has nowhere to run or hide from danger as a black woman, certainly not at this university. Like a flash of lightening the full import of title comes to us as ironic and diabolical. Finally, what Liv achieves when she receives tenure is a well planned outcome that is a travesty of justice built on lies.
Diallo’s twists create a greater horror than ghosts and legends in Master. But the elite university still remains. And that may be the greatest horror of all.
Master is screening on Amazon. Don’t miss it.