Belonging. We all have an emotional need to feel accepted and embraced by others. If we’re lucky, that sense of allyship begins in the comfort of our homes surrounded by loved ones. However, finding it outside of those spaces, particularly in predominantly white institutions (PWI), can be a daunting task often confounded with feelings of isolation and even terror.
In her feature film debut Master, filmmaker Mariama Diallo grapples with the psychological effects of racial terror and the pitfalls of ignoring the lessons of history. Set at a New England-based Ivy League University, Master centers on Gail Bishop (Regina Hall). She is the sole tenured Black professor who has been newly elected as a “Master,” or a dean of students — the first Black person in the university’s history to hold such a role.
As Gail tries to find her footing as an advocate for her students, her view of the university begins to unravel. She’s also terrorized by pest infestations, haunting artifacts, and strange noises in her University-issued housing. Though she has a group of first years under her helm, Gail takes an interest in Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), one of the only Black scholars, trying to figure out who she is in this new environment.
From the moment Jasmine steps on campus, she is othered. The all-white welcoming committee informs her that she’s been assigned to a haunted room. Later, she struggles to fit in with her white roommate whose grating entitlement includes having friends lounge on Jasmine’s bed in their outside clothes, treating her like the help, and even open hostility.
Determined to find a place on the campus despite the microaggressions, Jasmine inadvertently finds herself in contention with Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), an outspoken Black literature instructor who has her eye on a coveted tenure position.
Though Gail, Jasmine, and Liv reach toward one another during some moments in the film, they all stop short of being truly vulnerable with each other. As a result, their desperate need to thrive individually in an environment intent on suffocating them swallows them whole.
Dark and haunting, Diallo’s 91-minute film is a searing condemnation of institutions like this university who tout “radical inclusion” while standing on a foundation of racism, isolation, and denial. Though Gail, Jasmine, and Liv are all determined at first to press forward, making space for themselves in a place that had not long ago denied their humanity, the unnerving environment soon manifests instead into a very real monster.
From the moment Master opens, darkness coats it, and Diallo carries that tone throughout the film. The surroundings are so dimly lit that the actresses are barely even seen in some scenes. Though frustrating for the viewer, it’s a visual representation of how our three main characters feel. Yet, because they are determined to be seen as worthy, Gail and Jasmine, in particular, ignore their instincts even as things become direr..
Academia already leans into archaic values and politics, but the racism and cruelty that many BIPOC have had to contend with in PWIs is still dismissed. In Master, Diallo forces her viewers to feel just as alienated as her subjects while addressing the harms of faux inclusion and well-meaning white liberals. Furthermore, the film urges Black women who might find themselves in these institutions to keep their hands extended, for those who may very well need them as lifelines.
The lessons in Master are haunting and painful, but one thing remains apparent, there is no glory in being a token — history has proven that time and time again.
Master premiered at Sundance Festival Jan. 21, 2022 and will debut on Prime Video March 18, 2022.