Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is a freshman at Ancaster College*, a prestigious private school dating back to the early days of American history. It’s the kind of place where important people send their children, and everyone loves the story about how FDR had to settle for Harvard because Ancaster turned him down. Her arrival at campus appears uneventful at first—all balloons and hyper-bubbly orientation leaders in matching t-shirts and baseball caps—until one of them checks her dorm assignment and says to her peers, somewhat ominously, “Guys—she got the room.”
They don’t tell Jasmine what that means, preferring to keep it a private joke, and in fact walk off and leave her standing alone on the campus green with her roller suitcase and bag. That’s how things will go for Jasmine at this tony college—she’s there, but she doesn’t really belong. While people may be superficially nice, they’re too caught up in their own world to really perceive her, let along offer to bring her in. The fact that Jasmine is African American, while most of the students and faculty are white, seems to matter a lot to a lot of people, even though they would never be so crude as to say so directly.
Meanwhile, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), a longtime faculty member recently appointed as the first African American master (a combination of houseparent and dean) at Ancaster, is having trouble getting into her new home. Literally—the key she’s been given doesn’t work, and if that’s a rather obvious metaphor for gaining access to something you are absolutely entitled to, so be it.
But back to Jasmine’s room—it seems that back in the 1960s, the first African American student admitted to Ancaster killed herself while living there. This student was obsessed with being haunted by a witch, who in the 17th century had been tried, convicted, and executed not far from where the college is located today. Jasmine, who’s having a hard time navigating the often unconscious racism and entitlement of her peers as well as some members of the college staff and faculty (if you don’t understand how pernicious microagressions can be, you will after watching this film), forms an obsession with this bit of campus history, right down to the fact that the student was said to have killed herself at exactly 3:33 am.
There’s a third African American female who plays a key role in this story—Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), a professor coming up for tenure. Jasmine has a class with her, and feels she’s been graded unfairly because she doesn’t buy into the professor’s theory regarding The Scarlet Letter, and Gail finds herself in the midst of the dispute. If it sounds like much ado over nothing, just remember that the reason people fight so viciously in academia is because the stakes are so small. Except that sometimes they’re not, because in real life there’s a world of difference between tenured and not-tenured, and having a brand-name degree versus one from your local directional state university can make a huge, if unjustified, difference in your career prospects.
Master is a horror movie, and it echoes a lot of familiar horror tropes (you could play a nice drinking game calling out the references, except you’d pass out before the end credits), but does so stylishly and with a greater purpose in mind. The technical crew, including Charlotte Hornsby (cinematography), Mirren Gorden-Crozier (costume design), Gonzalo Cordoba (art direction), and Meredith Lippincott and Tommy Love (production design) deserve a lot of credit for the classy execution of what could otherwise have seemed like overly familiar elements. Master is also the first feature film from Mariama Diallo, and what’s that they say about great artists? Right, they don’t copy, they steal. | Sarah Boslaugh
Master opens in theatres and becomes available on Prime Video beginning March 18.
*Master was shot at Vassar College, and you may recognize the stunningly beautiful campus from the HBO series Sex Lives of College Girls. Or Frances Ha, or any of a number of other movies and television series, since apparently Vassar has the kind of architecture that signifies “college” to a lot of viewers.