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Sundance 2022 Film Review – Master (2022)

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Sundance 2022 Film Review – Master (2022)
Sundance 2022 Film Review – Master (2022)

Horror knows few, if any, boundaries. The genre doesn’t just deliver thrills and scares: it brings social commentary, satire, as well delving into the murkier depths of history. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Up opened a whole new set of doors, while the latest incarnation of Scream serves up the return of the much-loved slasher with a large helping of barbed comedy. Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, Master, heads in Peele’s direction, tracing a thread from the past to the present day through the experiences of two black women in a prestigious New England college.

When Jasmine (Zoe Renee) arrives at Ancaster College, she finds she’s in a significant minority: the Black Students’ Union only has seven members. She’s also been assigned a room believed to be haunted by the first black student at the establishment, who killed herself back in the 60s. At the same time, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has just been appointed the college’s first black master, a prestigious position which means she oversees a hall of residence. Aside from the legend about Jasmine’s room, the entire college has a dark past: built on the site of Salem-era witch trials, its grounds are said to be frequented by the ghost of their most famous victim. Both women find themselves faced with challenges from the past, some literal and others which aren’t so easily explained.

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Racism is Diallo’s main target right from the outset. Jasmine starts by feeling disorientated in her unfamiliar new surroundings and descends into panic and terror, fuelled by a combination of unease and overt hostility. And for Gail, initially the institution’s biggest advocate – watch the all-smiling diversity video made for the benefit of new applicants – becomes increasingly uneasy about both her allocated apartment and the impact on the present of the college’s past. The director uses her own college experiences in portraying the micro-hostilities which bewilder Jasmine – the white librarian who gives her a positive welcome, then searches her bags for stolen books when the exit alarm goes off, the black cafeteria worker enthusiastically offering mac n cheese to the students, but giving the girl a cold stare – moments which pass as the norm. They’re among some of the best in the film, as are Jasmine’s attempts to adapt herself to her new life by straightening her hair.

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Where the film falls down is in its attempts to be a horror, to marry its depiction of racism with bone chilling fear. It takes a disappointingly conventional approach – darkened staircases, huge paintings appearing to watch everything, ghostly figures in the window, bad dreams (or are they?) – and none of them get anywhere near whitening our knuckles. Most of the white characters don’t fare much better, coming across as caricatures rather than real people. Only Talia Ryder as Jasmine’s roommate gets anywhere close to convincing. The acting honours go very much to Regina Hall (also resuming comedy duties at Sundance with Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul) who carries her weighty role with a low-key ease and conviction.

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Summing it up with “It’s not ghosts. It’s not supernatural. It’s America. And it’s everywhere.” she makes the film’s message overly clear, just in case we haven’t twigged already. But we have and there are times when the film’s attempt to be a horror feels close to redundant. We’ve seen before how effective it can be in addressing difficult issues and giving audiences much to consider but, while Master does some things well, it’s too inconsistent to be powerful.

★★ 1/2


Horror, Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance 2022 | Released on Amazon Prime on 18 March | Dir. Mariama Diallo | Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Amber Gray, Ella Hunt.

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