Sundance Film Festival: ‘Master’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In writer-director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature Master, she explores the flawed education system in the United States at an elite New England University. As she touches upon the racial inequality and white elitism prevalent at Ancaster, the university is also built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill. Diallo combines the supernatural elements of the witch trials with the racial history within the school’s system. There are three women who attempt to navigate through the system at Ancaster in order to find their place at this school, while repressing the legend of the witch trials that deeply connects with Black students who have attended the school in the past.

We first meet, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who is a first-year student and she tries to find comfort in her new home that is cold and unwelcoming. Then we meet Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), just instated as “Master,” a dean of students, who slowly uncovers what lies behind the school’s immaculate facade. Lastly, we are introduced to literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who collides with colleagues who question her right to belong. Diallo constructs a script that explores politics and privilege, while her characters face the increasingly terrifying manifestations of the school’s haunted past… and present.

As we get to know these characters and the lore that is tied to the history of the school, there is a running social commentary that is racially driven to show the predominately white students and faculty at the school. Stylistically, Diallo along with her director of photography Charlotte Hornsby, combine the supernatural elements with reality, through the use of red lighting and framing certain characters. Once the spirit of the witch latches onto young Jasmine, the line between her reality and the dreamlike state the witch places her in start to bleed into each other. The genre mixing makes this film unique, but the story lacks clarity in what the focus is. The intriguing aspects of the supernatural elements overpower the social critique until the third act.

Master is an incredibly strong feature debut from Mariama Diallo. The visual aesthetic of this film enhances the story and connects you to the characters. This is a psychological horror that places heavy emphasis on the supernatural elements but doesn’t really do much with them. The first half of this film sets up the witch/Jasmine pairing and at the same time the storyline with Gail, who is being taunted in her own home. It then shifts focus to show deeply flawed the education system is in the third act with Liv Beckman, which was the most interesting aspect instead of the supernatural angle that was emphasized in the beginning.

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