By Lisa Trifone, Third rib examination:
First-time filmmaker Mariama Diallo combines social commentary and surreal horror in Master, a film that makes the most of its goodwill thanks to another captivating performance from Regina Hall. She’s Gail Bishop, newly installed as the “master” of a dormitory at Harvard, a long-standing tradition where a faculty member serves as something of a resource person for the community. That she’s a black woman taking on a coat with such a dated name isn’t lost on Gail — or us. But it’s still an honor, and she does her best to start the role in a good mood.
One of her closest allies on campus is Liv (Amber Grey), a woke black professor who challenges the institution’s status quo at every opportunity and encourages Gail to fight power as well. Living in the new master room is Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a West Coast transplant who is underappreciated at every turn. These three women create the pivot around which Master spins as it attempts to address everything from microaggressions and biases in literature to institutional racism and more. It’s refreshing to see any film brought to life by female characters, and Diallo’s approach certainly provides a handful of scares and shocks along the way. If it loses momentum, it’s because she’s trying to do so many things at once, seemingly aiming to tackle all the ingrained wrongs at once and therefore only give them their due.
The journey of each woman in Master is both unique and intertwined with others. Jasmine is a young woman navigating a whole new world, struggling to maintain her identity and confidence while others constantly make assumptions about her background and intelligence. Liv tries a little too hard to embrace her blackness and show it off to the world (for reasons that become clear towards the end of the film), infusing every lecture and interaction with her perspective on race. And Gail lands somewhere in between, proud to be the first black woman to be Master (and fully aware of the irony of the nomination), but not indifferent to the slights around every corner (like the very racist cookie tin she finds in the closets of the house she moves into as Master). Jasmine is in Liv’s literature class, and the two butts head for Jasmine’s rendition of The scarlet letter; Jasmine formalizes their dispute by filing a complaint with Gail, who is on the committee reviewing Liv’s tenure application.
Even though Diallo’s storyline feels cluttered and overloaded at times, the film never runs out of suspense, with dark corners hiding chilling secrets and seemingly simple social interactions carrying a sinister menace behind them. Jasmine’s white roommates and Gail’s white co-workers all act as one would expect of these enlightened liberals, though there is a sliver of insincerity in it all, one that each of the women sees through. The pressure builds and builds, and while the two ultimately burn very differently (and ultimately tragically), the fact that they hold together for as long as they do is a miracle. Hall in particular delivers a punch in the third act, finally saying (screaming) everything Gail has been thinking since taking on the new role.
Master does two things well: gives us food for thought as we learn more about these women and how they navigate the world; and delivering enough suspense and scare to make the film an entertaining thriller. While Diallo’s commentary is clearly convinced it could have benefited from a little polish, there’s enough in his feature debut to warrant watching it as a weekend watch.
Master is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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