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Review: Terrifying racism-in-academia is trapped in the far less frightening horror of ‘Master’

Two women walk on a tree-lined road.
Regina Hall, left, and Amber Gray in the movie “Master.”
(Amazon Studios)
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Six minutes into Mariama Diallo’s “Master,” before anything has even slightly gone bump in the night, the film is as scary as it is going to get. But it’s not so much fear of as fear for: Hopeful, excited freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is starting the fall semester as one of the only Black students at Ancaster College, a fictional bastion of white, Ivy League privilege. And she’s so sympathetically drawn by Diallo (whose own Yale experiences inform the story) and so appealingly played by Renee that instantly, given the gently ominous cues of camera and score, we know to be scared for her. The exact nature of what lies in store is almost immaterial; the dimming of her bright, eager, take-on-the-world optimism is a looming tragedy in itself.

There have already been a couple of odd occurrences. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), a tenured Ancaster professor, discovers an unexplained muddy footprint when moving in to the big old house that is one of the perks of being ordained the new master of Belleville Hall — a kind of adviser-chaperone-guardian to the girls living there. Jasmine’s orientation adviser lets out a little yelp of surprise when she sees that Jasmine has been assigned “that room” but won’t explain further. No matter: A cleverly intercut opening draws a parallel between the two characters, separated by a generation but united in evident, well-earned pride at getting to open doors to a future to which few Black women have had access.

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Jasmine meets her roommate, Amelia (Talia Ryder), who is already part of a crew. They make space for the newcomer — not effusively but not grudgingly — once Jasmine reveals herself as the funny, friendly, cool girl that she is. But the room they share has an unhappy history: The first-ever Black Ancaster student hanged herself here in the ‘60s, and rumors of it being haunted, possibly by a witch who was burned nearby in Pilgrim times, have abounded since.

Simultaneously, Gail is networking by throwing a housewarming soirée for her (predominantly white) colleagues, during which she discovers a racist figurine stashed under the sink. It is disturbing, but not nearly as much as the unconscious condescension with which she’s treated by her peers. Gail’s gracious, practiced responses to their blithe biases suggest how much pride she’s had to swallow to get where she is. But they also reinforce her complicity, her tacit agreement to be so grateful to be here at all that she won’t struggle as the engulfing ivy of the institution’s inherently conservative traditions gradually chokes the life — and the fire and the protest — out of her.

Even as anodyne a greeting as “Welcome to the club!” sounds loaded when it’s deployed by an old white guy in ostensible congratulations to a Black woman, while, when she hears Gail described as a possible future president, the dean (Talia Balsam) quips, “Should I call you ‘Barack’?”

“Your parents must be so proud,” the librarian tells Jasmine with saccharine sincerity before checking her bag for stolen books. And it’s not just the white staff who treat Jasmine differently: The Black cafeteria worker code-switches into frosty mode around her, and her literature professor Liv (Amber Gray) — a social justice activist in long braids who is Gail’s best friend — dismisses her input while lavishing praise (“Brilliant, Cressida!”) on her classmates. Each microaggression chips at Jasmine and Gail’s resolve and enthusiasm to macro effect, giving “Master” its heartbreakingly pessimistic undertow.

But despite this incisive dramatic perspective, Diallo is determined to make a horror film, and soon these well observed moments are engulfed in a deluge of supernatural hokum that paradoxically makes “Master” much more mundane.

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Jasmine falls out with Amelia over a boy and starts to have nightmares, waking up with mysterious scratches on her body. Gail is constantly distracted by the tinkling of a bell in the old servants’ quarters of her house. A nearby community of Puritan holdouts supplies some eerie nighttime-ritual backdrop, and a hooded figure begins hanging out in Jasmine’s peripheral vision, even before she gets her dead predecessor’s diary, to be read in the library at 3 a.m. under inevitably flickering lights. None of these ho-hum scare tactics has half the queasy charge of a roomful of fratty white guys leaping around Jasmine braying the N-word along to a rap song. None has the uncanny prickle of Gail being invited to “add flavor” to a roomful of white academics swilling wine and listening to Christopher Cross.

As if the film itself were unconvinced by its horror-movie trappings, the last third is almost entirely devoid of supernatural elements. Instead, it focuses on late-breaking colorism and passing issues, on racial tokenism in academia and the limits of one individual’s power to effect institutional change. These are interesting and knotty topics, treated intelligently and with insight, and along with a subplot about a potential rape and myriad other motifs that go nowhere, they warrant more than the cursory screen time they get here.

“It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural. It’s America, and it’s everywhere,” Gail tells Jasmine. Though delivered with grave elegance by a committed and convincing Hall, it’s an unusually clunky, on-the-nose line that also points out the central flaw in Diallo’s stylistically promising but narratively undisciplined debut. The ghosts of Ancaster’s racist past are not half as terrifying as its solid, flesh-and-blood manifestations in the present day, because history repeats itself not just in metaphors and spectral whispers, but loudly and overtly, for those who didn’t hear it the first time around.

And so “Master” ends up a genre film in which the outlandish generic elements — the witches and the maggots, the fizzing bulbs and out-of-sync shadows — are far less frightening than its portrayal of this real, everyday world in which racism isn’t a long-dead bogeyman; it’s alive, breathing, banal.

'Master'

Rated: R, for language and some drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: starts March 18, Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; the Landmark, West Los Angeles; also available on Amazon Prime Video

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