Isabella Astuto ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Systemic racism in higher education has been recognized as a legitimate problem in Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) since colleges and universities became integrated. In 2005, Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel wrote the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton about the policies and prejudices of the most prestigious Ivy Leagues. Mariama Diallo’s debut film, Master, takes on these issues in the format of a thriller, causing many to compare it to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us which combine racial commentary and horror. However, Master is not able to handle these topics or the horror genre as skillfully as Peele has, creating ambiguity that is more confusing than thought provoking.
Master, while claiming to be about the stories of three black women at the fictional Ancaster University somewhere in New England, really only focuses on two of them. Gail Bishop is the college’s new Master, or head of the college, and first black person to hold the position. The same year, Jasmine Moore moves into the school as a freshman, being placed in the same room in which Ancaster’s first black undergraduate student, Louisa Weeks lived, and eventually hanged herself, back in 1965. The movie follows the two of them getting used to their respective new roles. No matter the vast power difference between them, they both experience the effects of racism both in higher education, as well as broader society.
The third woman who the movie supposedly follows is Liv Beckman, played by Amber Gray of Broadway’s Hadestown and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 fame. Ultimately, the audience witnesses next to none of Liv’s own thoughts or life outside of Gail and Jasmine. Her character is at the center of much of the story’s conflict,which originally begins in the English class she teaches and Jasmine attends. Jasmine believes she is being unfairly treated by Liv after a bad grade in her class and files a dispute, negatively affecting Liv’s application for tenure with the college. Gail and Liv are friends beyond just being coworkers, clearly shown to have a close relationship outside of the school. This friendship is tested amongst Liv’s tenure application, a conversation Gail contributes to heavily, and the dispute, as Gail has more conversations with Jasmine. More and more attacks seemingly against Jasmine crop up around campus, such as a noose planted outside her door and a cross burned on the front lawn, as well as a mysterious woman wandering the area around the campus who may or may not be connected to it all. Gail believes the perpetrator to be a racist student, while Jasmine falls deeper and deeper into her own paranoia. She is reminded of Margaret Millet, a woman who was hanged for witchcraft in the area nearby centuries before, and her supposed curse on the school. She even considers it could potentially be Louisa Weeks, somehow haunting her.
The climax of the movie commences when Gail finds Jasmine hanging in her room and latches onto her dangling legs, wailing at the fact that this was how the young girl’s story had to end after weeks of trying to protect her. She finally decides to confront the mysterious woman, desperate for answers, and finds out she is Liv’s mother. The woman, Esther Bickert, is very clearly white and claims that Liv has been lying about her race the entire time, as well as having changed her birth name, after being possessed by the devil. That night, a party is thrown in Liv’s honor after she receives tenure, something that is clearly only being done for good press after Jasmine’s death. Gail confronts Liv, and Liv claims she has a black father and is offended by Gail’s accusation, storming out.
This “twist” regarding Liv’s race is one of the movie’s most controversial choices, due to the different interpretations it can lead to. If Liv is telling the truth, this plot point seems unnecessary, only causing Gail more distress. However, if it’s true, it could be interesting commentary on the recent trend of white people gaining notoriety, potentially even celebrity status, by pretending to be people of color, such as Rachel Dolezal. The problem is that, in the landscape of the rest of the plot, it seems to only complicate things. Does Liv have something to do with the attacks against Jasmine, or is it Jasmine’s white roommate whom she has a rocky relationship with? Or is it some supernatural force after all? This plot twist does little but seem like an attempt to pack in another aspect of social commentary into a movie that was already doing a pretty good job at that before then.
The movie never fully embraces the horror genre that many have boxed it into to the extent that Peele’s do, drawing back from the supernatural elements hinted at towards the beginning of the movie. In the end, it’s left up in the air what truly happened, more metaphorical than anything else. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Diallo says, “I wanted it to feel grounded and I didn’t want it to feel gratuitous.” Most of the movie was based off of Diallo’s own experiences at Yale. For instance, the title of Master was common at real life colleges as well, until many called it out for its racist origins in the phrase “House Master” that the white men of the house were often called by their slaves. This title was used at Yale until 2016, so the irony of a black woman being granted this position is not lost on Diallo. Throughout the movie, Gail is mistreated by her predominantly white coworkers, pushed into a maid role most of the time. By the end of the movie, Gail criticizes the faculty in one of the movie’s strongest scenes, realizing she has only been hired to metaphorically and literally clean up the school, leading to her resignation.
Where the movie focuses on its social commentary, it’s generally strong, shining light on experiences parallel to Diallo’s own as a black woman in higher education. However, in many ways it’s disappointing, not delivering on much of the horror that was promised, and leaving audiences confused by the amount of disjointed plot points that were included. The movie has a haunting tone even without the paranormal additions, and if it had been scaled down to focus exclusively on the real life horrors of systemic racism, it could have been much stronger. Even without this change though, the movie still sparks conversation that hopefully could turn into change within institutions of higher education.