Mariama Diallo’s directorial debut Master
is a haunting exploration of White Supremacism and institutionalized racial “insurance” to be found in seemingly progressive policies. The genre she’s chosen to talk about the targeting of students and teachers of colour by the white people on campus is horror and it plays out perfectly. The first thing that came to my mind when I read about it and even more so after watching, is Jordan Peele’s Get Out
. That was another bold directorial debut about White Supremacism which used horror to drive the point home. I’ll discuss the thematic parallels and the differences in execution later in details. I brought it up because it’s a prime example of how horror often says what drama can’t because it works even in the spaces when drama doesn’t exist since the horror elements are atmospheric rather than verbal or visual.
follows freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) and newly appointed master of Belleville House at Ancaster College, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) as they have strange and often extreme experiences during their time at the college. Ancaster College is predominantly white, and this is abundantly clarified by the staff and the students. The college is very proud of the first ever black house master and the director and other house masters keep stressing about how this is a major step ahead, including making a joke about how they could call her “Barack”. If that sounds harmless, one must realize one wouldn’t call any potential presidential candidate, Lincoln or Kennedy. It’s very obvious that Ancaster is literally interested in coming across as progressive and inclusive than being actually inclusive. The lack of diversity sensitization amongst the characters brings me to that conclusion.
The only other black professor on campus is Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) and she becomes a source of solace for Gail. She is also however very clear on the lack of sensitization but also painfully passive. She doesn’t seem to be exhausted of her life but she’s very obviously come to terms with the fact that her place is not one to bring about change but to do her best by her students within the confined space she’s provided. It’s interesting that there’s no malice anywhere and all the professors are respected, but Gail is basically a prized possession to the board rather than a source of meaningful contribution. No one profiles her but they unnecessarily congratulate her or acknowledge her very differently than they do their white colleagues.
And this is essentially profiling too because it’s about different treatment whether the treatment is in the form of positivity or negativity. And I think this is a very important inclusion in the traits of the people in Ancaster’s board because often this subtle racism is not understood to be racism since it’s special treatment, but being constantly reminded that you’re “other” is not
special, it’s discrimination! In fact, the opposite is Jasmine’s story. She’s once profiled against by none other than Liv who claims it’s understandable that Jasmine will have problems adjusting to the new school because she’s different and comes from… The sentence stays incomplete because Jasmine interrupts her to clarify she’s from Tacoma and this is definitely a problematic way of being addressed. The juxtaposition of Gail and Jasmine’s stories actually help clarify for the audience that whether done through politeness or through insult, racism is racism.
The horror element is introduced gradually into the story and apart from a nightmare, there is barely anything visually horrifying in the first half of the film. There’s a myth about a witch Margaret Millet who died nearby after standing trial for being a witch and then burnt. There’s a rumour running amongst the students that every year, a freshman is picked off by Margaret to be killed. And on top of that, Jasmine and her roommate Amber (Talia Ryder) share a room whose occupant from the 60s killed herself. Jasmine’s research reveals she was the first black student of Ancaster College and since that moment the malice starts rearing its ugly head. Again, it’s rather subtle as opposed to the horrendous stories like those of Brianna Taylor or George Floyd, may their souls rest in peace. For example, the black woman who serves lunch is very amicable with the students but treats Jasmine rudely, and the librarian pushes her boundaries after the exit gate beeps when she passes through it, which is a recurring thing for her despite no discrepancies in the library paperwork.
That beeping gate is the first of the racist supernatural occurrences. There are Jasmine’s nightmares, the almost targeted presence of maggots at Gail’s house, a practical joke with a noose on a rope hung on a doorknob, and a few phenomena that cannot really be explained but are clearly having racial undertones. It’s like racial discrimination is woven into the very fabric of Ancaster, a part of its identity. In fact, the horror is more in the environment and the mood of the film rather than from actual jump-scares (till the end because there are a few in the second half), to portray how the history and the “legacy” of the place matters more to its people than the people in it themselves. And how the racism there is also indirect and through actions rather than through verbal exchanges or tangible profiling. No important character in Master
is male or from a different social class so the only subject under focus can be the discrepancy due to race and I love that touch from screenwriter Diallo.
It’s in that nerve of the racism being literally woven into the fabric of the setting that Master
reminds me of Get Out
. Jordan Peele’s film was definitely more jarring, especially in the third act, but I think