Review by Sean Boelman
Sundance often features many debuts coming from exciting minority voices, and Mariama Diallo, director and writer of Master, is one of the more exciting prospects of this year’s festival. A disturbing and thoughtful socially-conscious horror film, this is an intriguing movie that will stick with audiences.
The film follows two African-American women at a predominantly white college in New England who begin to have disturbing experiences. Independently, each of the movie’s two stories is compelling, but it is the way in which Diallo ties them together that really gives the film such an intense impact.
One of the storylines focuses on the newly-instated dean of the college as she attempts to navigate the difficulties of being the token representative of diversity. This is the less horror-tinged of the two parts of the movie, but arguably the more harrowing, because of how its quietly grounded exploration of racism peels back the injustices of society.
The other portion of the film is about a first-year student who finds that the community on campus is not as welcoming as she has expected. This portion of the script has a few moments that almost go a bit too far into its horror elements, but Diallo always manages to rein it in with a brutally bleak image of real-life racism.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Diallo’s approach to the script is her pacing. She is less concerned with resolution than she is with exploring ideas. There are a lot of loose ends throughout the script and questions that are left unanswered, but this lack of catharsis makes the point of the movie all the more effective.
Regina Hall proves again here that she is one of the most underappreciated actresses working today. She brings such a quiet anger to the character, and it really fits the role. Other standouts are Zoe Renee, who carries her portion of the film quite well, and Amber Grey, who is a tremendous scene partner for Hall.
The movie is also very confidently directed by Diallo. The use of atmosphere is top-notch and really creates an overwhelming sense of dread. And there is some imagery in the film that is very effectively disturbing, especially those which are rooted in real-life racist symbolism and ideology.
Master may be on the uneven side, but there are so many exciting and interesting things in the script that its flaws can be forgiven. It’s such a confident debut from Mariama Diallo, and it will be exciting to see where she goes from here.
Master screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which ran virtually from January 20-30.