You can’t get away from it.
There’s a great comical interlude about halfway through Mariama Diallo‘s feature debut Master wherein a practically all-white New England university puts together an advertisement for a newly formed “alliance for inclusion.” In it are the only two Black teachers at the school and two or three POC students that we’ve never seen until that moment. They talk about the initiative as if it’s some grand idea that will stop racism in its tracks despite a literal cross burning occurring mere days earlier. They talk as if their words aren’t just a superficial collection of hollow sentiments to deflect from the insidiously systemic root of the problem. The only thing worse than refusing to engage with a critical issue such as race is pretending that you are.
It is all pretend, though. Look at the Democratic photo shoot of white senators appropriating African garb as if optics somehow makes up for their majority—earned because POC fought like hell at the ballot box—let their promised agenda die. For every true ally exists many more pretenders exploiting their position and privilege in a way that benefits them for the attempt despite never accomplishing anything with substance. It’s why Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) can never really know why it was she earned a promotion to become Ancaster’s first Black “house master,” a charged title if there ever was one. Was it to put her in a position to help rehabilitate the school’s image? Or to sell more applications and rubber stamp questionable decisions in her name?
Maybe it’s why Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) chose to come there as a freshman—knowing someone would be looking out for her despite the establishment’s historical reputation. The school is almost as old as America and has a very checkered past. Legend even says it’s haunted by a witch who was hung centuries ago. The ghost chooses one newcomer every year to take with it to Hell and it just so happens that Jasmine and her roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder) were assigned the dorm of the last recorded suicide on campus. Is it coincidence? Maybe. Is it a test? How can one even think about such nonsense when undeniable horror is already present wherever Jasmine goes? The stares of white teens. Unspoken accusations of theft. Thinly veiled segregation.
Every synopsis I’ve read breaks down Master as being the story of three Black women, but Amber Gray‘s English professor (currently under consideration for tenure) Liv Beckman is very much a supporting character when compared to Gail and Jasmine. She’s a pawn of sorts, moved around the board to affect (and perhaps infect) the others at the whim of those in charge (board members played by the likes of Talia Balsam and Bruce Altman). But she’s also a liability. Because while she plays the game and is more than willing to reap the rewards of optics, she isn’t afraid to push buttons. Where Gail measures her words and jumps to attention, Liv talks back. Where Jasmine seeks the illusion of colorblindness, Liv knows color must conversely be seen.
The question is thus whether that level of ownership and strength will be embraced as a challenge or dismissed as a fault by the leads. Gail has ample opportunity to make her mark throughout this school year and yet you can’t help but watch her become the equivalent of Human Resources instead, fooling herself into believing that she’s protecting the powerless (students/minorities) while covering for the powerful (the white establishment). Jasmine shies away from confronting race in literature and from allowing herself to befriend others like her rather than the entitled white teens who rule the hallways. They both seek to fit in. To belong. To conform. They intrinsically exist under the unwritten reality that they’re not America’s default. They ultimately hide in plain sight by erasing themselves.
What is the horror? A witch coming to take Jasmine’s soul? An infestation of maggots slithering inside Gail’s new home? Or is it their complicity in their own demise? The ghost story is a great way to burrow under Jasmine’s skin—especially because she’s prone to sleepwalking and nightmares (the latter of which manifest in socially terrifying forms as much as supernatural ones). It becomes an overlay to what’s really happening by augmenting the daily psychological torment she’s experiencing. Gail sees it and tries to help by separating the two instead of acknowledging the overlap. Like Liv says, just because you can’t see race doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s even a part of those maggots. They’re the invisible rot Gail’s white peers leave for her to fix.
Diallo throws the kitchen sink on-screen, ensuring some themes and motives prove more blatant than others. That can often rub audiences the wrong way, but I don’t think it’s a mistake. Some of this stuff needs to be overt because we’ve become numb to it all (if some of us were cognizant of it in the first place). Some moments can also feel incomplete by comparison because they seem too subtle. You must jump aboard and let Diallo take you station to station because there’s no express train to clarity. Everyone finds (or doesn’t) their truth in their own time and it can often come too late for some. Nothing is a coincidence, though. Ancaster’s ghost story contains a noose rather than fire with reason. Optics are everything.
 Regina Hall appears in Master by Mariama Diallo, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.