The teaching staff and student body at Ancaster College, a university pointedly situated not far from the site of the Salem witch trials, are overwhelmingly white – but it’s the start of another school year, and things are getting better all the time, aren’t they? Aren’t they? The answer, when it comes, gradually and slyly, is chilling
Jasmine (Zoe Renee) arrives on campus for undergraduate study, enthusiastic and green, although her optimism is dampened when everyone starts muttering about the room she’s been allotted. The rumours suggest a threat that’s deeper than the one posed immediately by her privileged-party-girl roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder), who has an all-white hedonistic crew in tow who act like they've never seen a person of colour before.
Elsewhere, garlanded academic Gail (Regina Hall) is starting a new role as the first Black Master of the college – a job title that alone should get you thinking about the lingering power structures, codes and beliefs that are going to make life tough for both Amelia and Gail. Another Black academic, Liv (Amber Gray), is fighting for tenure, but her engaged, radical persona might be hiding a story more complicated than it first appears.
In UK cinemas Mar 18.
This is a smart, meaningful first film, with nods to The Shining and Get Out
In a straight up drama this would be troubling and searching. But Diallo tells Master as a stylish horror, leaning into supernatural frights and finding scares in history, both recent and ancient. It doesn’t all add up and some of its tactics are a little obvious. Also, Diallo has so many righteous targets, it’s hard to hit them all square-on.
That said, we’re never far from an affecting skewering of hierarchies and presumptive behaviour. One scene where Jasmine is snubbed by a Black worker at the canteen might be quick but it cuts deep, while throughout we’re faced with streams of micro-aggressions that flow together into one deep river of racism that threatens to swallow our principal characters whole.
This is a smart, meaningful first film, with nods all over the place to classics like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as more recent obvious touch points like Get Out. It’s not all subtle, but then neither is prejudice.
Master premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Streaming on Amazon Prime Mar 18, 2022.