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“Master” Works Well as a Character Drama, But Stumbles in Its Genre Elements (SXSW ‘22 Review)

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Master tells the story of three black women at a prestigious New England liberal arts college clearly modeled on an Amherst or Williams. The first, played by the great Regina Hall (Support the Girls), has recently been promoted to “master” of a residence hall, the first woman to hold the position. The second, played by Zoe Renee (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase), is a new freshman recently enrolled in the college. The third, played by Amber Gray (The Underground Railroad), is a teacher chasing tenure.

The women’s lives intersect in certain key respects and the dynamic between the three women is fertile ground for the performers. Hall ends up a mentor figure to Renee in dealing with the tensions on campus. Renee ends up in a difficult academic relationship with her professor played by Gray. Gray’s tenure rests in part on Hall’s blessing of her candidacy. The film is particularly graced by the tangible energy to their scenes together.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film attempts ratchets up the tension by deploying overt horror elements. The school is said to be haunted by the specter of a Salem witch who remains at the spot where she was hung many years ago. Decades earlier, the school’s first black student had succumbed to a haunting that led to her suicide. These paranormal activities are probably the film’s least successful elements. While the horror allegory makes sense, I cannot escape the sneaking suspicion that financing for the film was a lot easier to find with a genre hook rather than as just a straight character drama.

Writer/director Mariama Diallo seems far more assured in depicting the racial tensions and complexities of academia. One sequence sees a “diversity” video the college puts out that’s a nearly risible farce of the real life the characters experience at the school. Hall’s character is blithely called the Obama of the university while roommates unconsciously assume Renee’s character should be the first to clean a dorm room spill. I found the film to be extremely unsettling in the specificity of these aggression both micro and macro.

Hall, as per the norm, is absolutely tremendous here. I think the performance particularly works in the way she grapples with balancing her own ambitions and her broader discomfort with the structural racism of the school’s senior leadership. Hall is such a compelling bedrock central figure that even when the film starts to stumble through the horror elements she remains the eye of the film’s hurricane.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Master debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, played at SXSW ‘22, and will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on March 18, 2022.