“Master”, which was released on Amazon Prime two days ago, feels rather tame in its incoherent mix of racial issues and supernatural elements. The movie initially seems to be ready to tackle these sensitive issues in addition to trying to scare and unnerve us a lot, but the overall result is not particularly successful in either of its two different attempts, and it does not leave much impression on us in the end except a few thought-provoking moments which are unfortunately left underdeveloped without much dramatic impact.
At first, the movie alternates between two different African American women in some prestigious New England college with lots of historical background. As the first colored female master in the campus, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is determined to bring some fresh air of change into the campus, and it looks like everything will go well for her as another semester is started in the campus. Besides getting the full support from the faculty staff whose members are mostly Caucasian, Gail has a fairly productive time with those students under her charge during their first meeting, and she is also willing to support more her friend/colleague Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), who is incidentally the only other African American female faculty member in the campus besides Gail.
One of the students under Gail’s charge is a young African American woman named Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), and her first day in the campus is not exactly pleasant to say the least. As one of a very few colored students in the campus, she feels rather daunted right from when she arrives in front of her dormitory building, and her fellow students do not welcome her that much when she happens to be assigned to a certain notorious room. According to an old rumor in the campus, that room has been haunted by the ghost of a woman hanged for witchcraft in the 17th century, and Jasmine later came to learn a bit about how the first African American female student in the campus killed herself in that cursed room many years ago.
Anyway, Jasmine tries to keep focusing on her study, but she cannot help but feel more unnerved about whatever is hovering around her dormitory room. She often has disturbing dreams which may be associated with that malicious ghost, and that accordingly affects her relationship with her Caucasian roommate. They are not exactly close to each other, but her roommate comes to notice that something is going wrong with Jasmine, and the mood accordingly becomes more awkward between them.
Meanwhile, Jasmine also comes to have a trouble at Liv’s literature class. While she tries her best on the latest essay homework, Liv give her an F just because she does not approve of what Jasmine wrote, but she inexplicably does not have much problem with what Jasmine’s roommate casually wrote without much thought, and that eventually makes Jasmine file a complaint against Liv’s class. This puts both Liv and Gail in a rather awkward situation, because Liv is about to be evaluated for her tenure while Gail is supposed to stand by Jasmine even though Gail is also expected to provide some support to Liv.
The screenplay by director/writer Mariama Diallo could delve more into this interestingly tricky circumstance among its three main characters, but the movie instead comes to focus more on terrorizing not only Jasmine but also Gail, who also begins to experience odd and disturbing things day by day. At one point, she is aghast as suddenly encountering a serious pest problem in her campus residence, and that is just the beginning of what will come next for her.
While frequently emphasizing the old historical background of the college, the movie attempts to make some points on how the systemic racism from the past is alive and well under the surface, but these points are often delivered in rather heavy-handed ways. There are a few effective scenes which will make you cringe with indirect racist undertones (I particularly appreciate the evening dormitory party scene where Jasmine has to endure a bunch of Caucasian boys and girls casually appropriating some African American rap music just for fun), but there are also a number of glaringly contrived moments such as when Gail comes to learn of a hidden secret behind one certain supporting character later in the story, and we even get a big burning cross to remind us of how bad things are in the campus.
Furthermore, the movie does not work well as a horror flick either. While we surely get lots of ominous moments as both Gail and Jasmine are disturbed in one way or another, these moments did not add up much to something impactful enough for us, and the movie sadly under-utilizes the considerable presence and talent of Zoe Renee, who admirably tries her best with the bland materials given to her. In case of several other main cast members in the film, Regina Hall demonstrates more of the serious side of her talent as she previously did in “Support the Girls” (2018), but there are not many things to do for her except looking concerned or frightened, and Amber Gray, Talia Balsam, and Bruce Altman are simply required to fill their respective supporting parts.
In conclusion, “Master” is quite disappointing in its failed attempts to mix horror elements with race issues, and its regrettable failure makes me admire more what Jordan Peele accomplishes in his Oscar-winning debut film “Get Out” (2017), which was a bit underrated by me but, as I correctly predicted at that time, has become more iconic during last several years. To be frank with you, I would rather recommend you to watch that seminal film or Netflix TV series “The Chair”, which did a better job of handling race issues in its similar campus background. Believe me, you will have a better time with either of these two special works.