SXSW Film Review: Master

Academic horror makes racism its thesis


The ghosts of institutionalized racism amidst the hallowed halls of academia do more than rattle chains in the night.

An arresting feature debut from Director Mariana Diallo, Master gingerly walks the tightrope between outright supernatural horror and a criticism of the enduring power of monied white privilege.

Master is set in the fictional New England University Ancaster, where portraits of the school’s all-white former Chancellors and famed forebears adorn the walls. Diallo focuses her gaze on three African-American women who attempt to subvert the Powers that Be with mixed results

The Ancaster faculty’s Ivory Soap bubble of microaggressions, harassment, and worse, are most at first aimed at Freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee), practically the only student of color in an otherwise all-white milieu. At a drunken frat party during which she’s forced to fend off horny, marauding frat rats, she’s told the imposing manse and campus was built on top of a 17th century witch burning, and that the crone’s shade continues to wreak vengeance on any newcomer unlucky enough to be assigned to dorm room 302.

Secondly, there’s Regina Hall’s Gail Bishop, celebrated — ahem — as the university’s first-ever African-American Master. The film’s title can be parsed in a myriad of ways but the most obvious is that of the “master and slave” relationship. Bishop has her own racially-related roadblocks to smash through, but it’s tenured Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) that ends up being the most confounding character in the film. Seemingly at odds, for reasons unknown, she rewards Jasmine’s hard work and well-researched assignments with low grades, and even an “F+” at one point. It appears that the professor, has some major skeletons in her closet vis a vis her history at the school, and turns out to be the exact opposite of what Jasmine most needs.

Over and into these already dismaying — and sadly all too real — racial inequities, Diallo (who also penned the screenplay) adds a spectral figure cloaked in a black cape and cowl rumored to be the aforementioned witch. Then there’s the “now you see it now you don’ oil painting of Ancaster’s founder, which morphs from a genteel portraiture into a likeness that would make Francis Bacon queasy. Diallo wisely doles out these disquieting phantasms bit by bit. They form a spectral and historical daisy chain linking the university and its current and past alumni to the racial atrocities of the past, the present, and, unfortunately I fear, the future.


Festival Favorites, Texas Premiere
Wednesday, March 16, 5:15pm, Stateside
Saturday, March 19, 9:15pm Alamo South Lamar
Online: March 16, 9am-March 18, 9am

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