In her directorial debut, horror drama film “Master,” Mariama Diallo attempts to present America’s shameful history, both past, and present, with abhorrent racism in the form of a supernatural ghost which haunts a university campus. However, the attempt sounds better than it actually looks, as it falls to superficial and confusingly haphazard levels. With a plot that keeps branching out and miserably going out of control, and visuals that do not have any significance or depth, “Master” is a film that hardly does anything right, and is one to easily avoid.
Gail Bishop has been newly appointed as the master of Ancaster University, an institution which has existed for almost as long as America itself. The elite institute has recently aimed to keep up with the changing times, and Gail’s appointment as master is also linked with this, as she is the first black professor to be given this position at the university. At the same time as she moves into the master’s house on the campus, new student Jasmine Moore is also moving onto the campus for her freshman year. Jasmine, a young black girl, visually sticks out from the very beginning on a predominantly white campus. When she is allotted her room number, the seniors already warily talk about her luck, as she has been allotted “the room,” but they do not tell her what the matter is when she asks. It is only after settling in and when her roommate and her friends have a secret party in their room that she gets to know what is wrong with the room.
Her roommate, Amelia’s boyfriend, Tyler, tells her that the campus is believed to be haunted by the spirit of a woman, Margaret Millet, who had been killed by villagers on suspicion of being a witch. As the campus is located very close to places that have been notoriously active in the Salem witch-hunts, the ghost supposedly kills whoever student lives in the room that Jasmine and Amelia are given. However, the ghost also seems to be making only black students her target, as a black student had hanged herself to death in the same room some fifty or so years back. Meanwhile, Gail also finds strange oddities while moving into her house—the main door locks and unlocks itself randomly, there are sinister footprints on the floor, there are bells that strangely ding on their own, and the house overall seems to have a problem with maggot infestation.
As both the women gradually settle in, Jasmine starts to have frightening nightmares in which she is hanged by the ghost of Margaret Miller, but strangely, she also wakes up with real scars on her hands and body. Things take an ultimate turn towards racial hate crimes, though, when somebody carves the word “Leave” on Jasmine’s door and ties a rope noose on her doorway. Scared as well as intrigued by all these occurrences, Jasmine decides to read some more into the history of the university and of the student who hanged herself in her room.
By this time, the film already seems to have invoked too many matters of serious concern, but it only gets more convoluted and worse from here, as it continues to bring in more elements. The university is also situated close to a village which still likes to live and dress in black overalls as they used to three hundred years back, for whatever reason.
Another African-American professor, Liv Beckman, aims to be granted a tenure professorship, but a dispute that Jasmine files against her on the grounds of academic grades seems to get in the way of it. Gradually, the film focuses more on Liv and her relation with Gail, and then ultimately takes her character to a position that would perhaps leave one flabbergasted, and not in a good way.
Both Jasmine and Gail are haunted by terrible nightmares where they are attacked in some way for their race and color. In particular, the student has a series of such imaginings that fail to either create any significant connection to anything or any feeling of horror. There is also an episode of Jasmine kissing her roommate’s boyfriend, which creates a feud between the two girls, so there’s that as well. Too many elements in itself gets problematic for a film of ninety minutes, but ‘Master’ gets it even worse as all of it is so haphazardly and meaninglessly presented. When it all comes together, the film feels like a boring, drab movie, lasting almost double its runtime.
‘Master’s intentions are perhaps fair, and commendable even: it tries to talk about and tackle the problem of tokenism and empty symbolism that exists even more in today’s world of racial injustice. In a smart juxtaposition of an advertisement claiming the university’s focus on diversity and the actual events that happen there (a wooden cross is put on fire in classic KKK style), the film establishes the appointment of Gail as the master as a hollow pretense of acceptance and representation.
Unfortunately, though, such moments are very rare in the film, and it mostly fails to put across any serious thought about race and inequality. “Master” is an even bigger failure when considered as a horror film, as it tries to portray itself. There is not a single moment of fright or spookiness, and only the characters act as if they are mortally scared by occurrences that have no effect on the viewer. Overall, ‘Master’ rounds up as a film to forget for those lured in by its interesting premise, and one to avoid for all others.