I had to pause the movie Master about 30 minutes in. I saw something so traumatizing and so familiar that it almost made me have a panic attack.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Mariama Diallo, Master stars Regina Hall as Gail Bishop, the first Black master of Ancaster, an elite New England university. As we follow Gail’s story, we are also introduced to Jasmine Moore, played by Zoe Renee, a Black student from a middle-class background who is a freshman at the Predominantly White Institution (PWI). The stories unfold in parallel fashion. On one track, Gail traverses the minefield that is being a Black administrator surrounded by liberal, covertly racist white colleagues. And on the other track, Jasmine discovers that being Black at a PWI means putting up with so many racialized microaggressions that it can be hard to know if others are being intentionally racist or just obliviously white. All the while, in the background, there is creeping dread as something supernatural begins to unfold.
Now, I think the supernatural element is neither well thought out nor properly executed. There is a story of a curse having to do with Margaret Millet, a woman assumed to be a witch who was put to death not too far from campus grounds. Millet’s ghost haunts the university and, at 3:33 on December 3rd, she kills whoever is staying in the room that Jasmine is staying in. This element of the story leaves me with more questions than answers—but I don’t think the filmmakers are very interested in this part of the story. (Perhaps it was tacked on to make the movie more bankable since horror tends to do well these days?) What it seems the filmmakers are actually interested in is the experience of being Black at a university that has historically been hostile to people who look like you. This theme is explored from two perspectives.
A Black English professor is up for tenure at the university, and Hall is on the committee considering her dossier. She tries to support this colleague, but the white faculty who are on the committee with her constantly remind Hall of her “place” in the university, and use the fact that she had to work very hard to get to her position (indeed, harder than any of the white faculty members, I’m sure) as a way to pit her against the promotion of another Black colleague.
Now, I have never had that exact situation happened to me before, but the world of Black academia is small. There are so few Black folks who have jobs in academia that most everyone either knows each other or have heard of each other. And while I have not experienced this first hand, I know of many colleagues who have been in this exact position. You are put in a hard to get position, and you promised yourself that you would make things easier for the person who came behind you. Instead, your colleagues expect you to be as hard on others as the gatekeepers were to you. This is a frustrating place to be, and the movie captures that element beautifully.
Then there is what happens to Jasmine, and this brings me to the scene that hit a little too close to home.
I have attended PWIs my whole life, both as an undergrad and as a grad student. I work at one now as the Associate Director of Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University. The scenes featuring Regina Hall have an element of truth because white faculty can, at times, be oblivious to experiences of their Black colleagues, but what Jasmine experiences in the film was so painful that there were moments I had to pause the movie.
She receives a very cold welcome during freshman orientation. She is graded much harsher than her white cohorts for no other reason than because she is a Black student. She tries to go to a white frat party, and is initially turned away but then let in because she knew someone inside. All these things happened to me when I was a college freshman in the early 2000s.
Then the scene happened that was so intense that I had to stop the film and come back the next day.
While Jasmine is at the aforementioned frat party, a song that is seemingly beloved by white students everywhere comes on: “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes. I have seen white students at universities across the nation lose their mind over this song. I have no idea why it is so beloved, but the reaction in the film is an authentic one. White partygoers sing loudly, but then a line is crossed. Instead of editing themselves and not saying the n-word, they choose to sing the song as it was written and include the word with a hard r.
I had to walk away.
I had the same experience when I was a junior in college. I went to a white frat party, and Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality” came on the speakers. I was a student in a southern university, so this song was everywhere at the time. I had many white friends, but when the n-word was used, they would choose not to use it. That was not the case with these white frat boys I did not know.
They said the word to my face, and were surprised that it angered me. When the next song came on, they said the word again, this time in defiance of what I had just told them, and this resulted in me punching the president of that fraternity. Nothing became of this incident. My frat brothers (members of a historically Black Greek Letter organization) quickly whisked me out the party, and we never stepped foot in that frat house again. But this is why that scene hit me so hard. It tapped into a painful experience that I’d experienced, but I am not alone. I have talked to many other Black folks who have had similar experiences. This film is full of little moments like that. Moments that only a person who has lived through them could have written and captured so well on film.
This is an uneven film, and the supernatural moments are not where the source of the horror lies. It is in the realization that the nature of racism is such that it is ubiquitous and unending. Even on a college campus populated by people who think themselves liberal, but whose whiteness remains central to how they interact with the world.
What’s amazing about this film is that the literal demons depicted in the movie are less scary than the things it shows that happen in the real world.