As a woman of color, being able to consume media about my community that is authentic is of the utmost importance to me especially when it comes to film. It is essential that we are in control of our own narrative when something is created for public consumption. Who better to tell our own stories than us? Thankfully, the horror genre has finally started to embrace the idea of films centering black experiences and stories, and we’re starting to drift away from stereotypes and hollow characters and really explore our trauma ourselves through the lens of horror. When I heard Mariama Diallo had the opportunity to not only write but direct her first feature film with Amazon Studios, MASTER, I was elated, especially after seeing her short film, Hair Wolf, in 2018. These days, many black horror films are compared to Get Out but I personally feel that that’s a lazy way to categorize black film and media. MASTER is its own beast, a beast that fully understands the unique and relentless experiences of black women navigating mostly white spaces.
MASTER is a slow burn that personifies the subtle horror of racial microaggressions that black women face daily. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) navigates the academic system of prestigious New England University, Ancaster. A predominately white school with a downplayed history of violence and a looming legend of a local witch, Gail attempts to settle into her new position on campus as the “House Master” (a title that is already loaded with a lot of racial trauma). Gail introduces herself to all the students as the new House Master and lets them know they are at home here.
As the film progresses, it is clear that not everyone at the university is able to find the comfort and acceptance a home provides. No character feels this sense of isolation and othering more than Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee). Jasmine struggles to connect with her peers outside of being seen as expendable to them. She continues to internalize their microaggressions and slights as they reduce her to nothing more than an afterthought. She longs for significant connections and finds herself under the wing of Gail. But Gail has her own struggles, proving that no matter what position of status you are in, as a black woman in a predominantly white space, you still have racial barriers holding you back. As Gail tries to find her footing as House Master and a mentor to Jasmine, things begin to unravel and the audience gets to see how the two women deal with the taxing weight of racism on their own terms. Both dabble with passive respectability politics until they reach their breaking point.
The tension continues to build while these two women agonizingly tread through isolation, being undermined by their white peers and a subtle supernatural force that seems to be drawn to them. Everything starts to crumble as we are introduced to another character Liv (played by Amber Gray), a professor who Jasmine believes is targeting her. Something seems off as Liv (a seemingly fellow black professor) fails her on an assignment, while giving her underachieving white classmate an adequate grade. The audience is left to wonder whether she is pushing Jasmine to be her best a la the classic “three times as hard” consequence that most black students hear when in school or if its something more calculated and sinister. As the film continues, Gail and Jasmine can sense that something darker is hiding under the surface of the supposedly “diverse and intersectional” university. They begin independently researching the history and lore of the school as their colleagues and an unseen force continuously gaslight them into doubting their sanity.
MASTER endlessly delivers blows throughout the film covering topics like interpersonal black relationships, internalized racism, respectability politics, and performative allyship. However, where it really hits the hardest is the way it examines microaggressions and white feminism. The film does an incredible job of illustrating how microaggressions can be just as damaging as blatant racism. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term ‘microaggression,’ I present the definition from Chester M. Pierce: “Microaggressions are commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.”
I really appreciate how Diallo has intertwined these constant incidents of racism with the looming presence of the campus witch because that’s how racism feels – haunting – and seeing it so artistically laid out without veering into trauma porn really had me feeling seen. Rather, the jump scares Mariama uses an overwhelming sense of discomfort and increasing dread. She has the audience sit with that discomfort, something that is also necessary when addressing racism in the real world. Blatant racism is used as a tool to jolt the audience, for example when moving into her new home, Gail finds a hidden Mammy Cookie Jar tucked away in a cabinet, which is something I myself have experienced personally. This again speaks to the film’s authenticity. I don’t feel that there are many horror movies out there that really speak directly to black women and our experiences. So seeing it presented in such a raw and authentic way really drove the point home that for some of us these horrors are real.
The visuals in MASTER are just as haunting as the examination of racism. The film is shrouded in darkness but is filled with portraits of white historical university founders who cut through the haze to glare down at both Gail and Jasmine throughout the film. This idea that they are always being watched and monitored is solidified when Jasmine is racially profiled in the campus library. Hall, Renee, and Gray do a phenomenal job of bringing life to these characters, but Hall really drives home the devastation of these very real experiences. All of this ties together in a haunting and meaningful story that I hope audiences will take a chance to learn from and empathize with.
As a trigger warning to black audiences, this film doesn’t shy away from deeply racist imagery and discussions of hanging, but I wouldn’t categorize this film as trauma porn.
MASTER will be available exclusively on Prime Video, Friday, March 18th.
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