Sundance 2022: Supernatural Thriller “Master” Explores the Everyday Horrors of Racism—and the Living Nightmares They Can Become

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

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Regina Hall playing Dr. Gail Bishop in Master by Mariama Diallo. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Mariama Diallo’s Master, which she wrote and directed, was one of the first films I watched as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, held virtually out of the iconic institution’s Park City, Utah location. It’s also the film I’ve thought back on most over the past two weeks, and one I look forward to watching again in order to fully mine its depths.

Produced by Amazon Studios and due to be released sometime in 2022, Diallo’s debut feature deftly navigates several registers in terms of genre—slipping from supernatural horror to intellectual drama to psychological thriller and back again. The film is set at the fictional Ancaster College, a prestigious New England institution with a dark past: The campus rests on the site of a long-ago, notorious witch trial and hanging. It perhaps goes without saying that the campus is also predominantly white, a fact that proves exceptionally significant to the three women whose experiences intersect in the film.

Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a new freshman, one of very few Black students; she’s gregarious and unassuming, immediately if unintentionally butting heads with her roommate, who comes to college with a pre-established friend group from boarding school. Assigned “the room,” a site of several past suicides and supposedly haunted by the witch killed on the land centuries before, Jasmine tries to make the best of her college experience despite increasingly discomfiting encounters, nightmares and visions.

In addition to these supernatural distractions, Jasmine struggles with one of her professors, Dr. Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), also a woman of color, who argues with the freshman about her perception of race in the novels they’re reading. Liv, for her part, is battling against the faculty for a bid at tenure, a source of tension that serves as a backdrop for much of the film.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gail Bishop (played with gravitas and nuance by Regina Hall) finds herself appointed the first Black “Master” at the college. This title and position, essentially a deanship, has real antecedents at Ivys like Harvard and Yale (Diallo’s alma mater), until students lobbied to have the title changed because it invoked legacies of slavery. For her fictional part, Gail moves into an old house on campus traditionally lived in by the Master—and yet, from her first night, the house itself seems to resist her authority, drawing her over and over to the abandoned attic servant’s quarters where bells ring without the intervention of human hands.

Gail moves into an old house on campus traditionally lived in by the Master—and yet the house itself seems to resist her authority, drawing her over and over to the abandoned attic servant’s quarters where bells ring without the intervention of human hands.

Torn between caring for the increasingly distressed Jasmine and negotiating between Liv and the rest of the (white) faculty, Gail struggles to separate her own feelings of unease and repeated eerie encounters with Jasmine’s fear and paranoia. Believing Jasmine’s experiences to be no more than manifestations of racialized anxiety in a mostly white space, Gail tells the young woman, “It’s not ghosts. It’s not supernatural. It’s America”—a sentiment that paves the way for further tragedy.

Master delivers a remarkable range of twists and turns, and while the film sometimes loses track of its own mysteries, Diallo’s ambitious venture ultimately proffers such a rich set of questions and challenges that I was willing to forgive some narrative ambiguity. I especially liked how closely the film hews to Gail and Jasmine’s perspectives during key moments without ever quite giving way to complete access into their psyches or motivations, even when we appear to be seeing into their darkest thoughts.

Another particularly arresting element of the film is its use of tropes familiar to lovers of stories of witches and ghosts—the dark netherworld under the bed, the slippage between nightmare and reality, the unexplainable noises of haunted homes. Master offers homages to classics like Suspiria (1977) and The Shining (1980), only to dismantle that notion of the familiar in unanticipated ways.  

Ultimately, Master doesn’t pull any punches, and its biting critique of the abysmal state of American race politics, particularly in the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, is vicious and direct. The film’s refusal to answer all of its own questions about what Jasmine and Gail experience may feel slightly frustrating, but it’s also expressive and thoughtful—a calculated assessment of how belief and knowledge blur when we’re trained to play nice and not trust our own instincts.

And while I won’t give away the end, I will say that it’s largely satisfying and entirely unexpected—perhaps offering a new and effective rejoinder when the horrors of the past inevitably bleed into the present.

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.

  1. Framing Agnes
  2. Master
  3. Am I OK?
  4. Tiktok, Boom
  5. Leonor Will Never Die
  6. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
  7. Girl Picture
  8. Calendar Girls
  9. Nanny
  10. Sirens
  11. Call Jane
  12. The Janes

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.