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Study Hell

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Master (2022)

The opening scene in “Master” crosscuts between an older Black woman and a younger Black woman both moving into a residence hall. The reason for the juxtaposition is not readily apparent. Is the older one experiencing déjà vu as she moves in? Are there parallels to be gleaned from this montage?

It’s not revealed until a bit later that the younger woman isn’t in a flashback and that their moves are in fact contemporaneous. Professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the first Black woman to assume the position of master at the Belleville House on the Ancaster College campus, where Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is the lone Black incoming freshman. What ensues is akin to a supercut compilation of Microaggression’s Greatest Hits.

Jasmine gets called Beyoncé, a Williams sister and Lizzo by whites. She is expected to clean up after a white guest of her white roommate. She assumes the whites will chip in for pizza and ends up getting stiffed. Whites freely shout the N-word while rapping along to songs played at a party she attends. A librarian who neglects to demagnetize books she has just checked out nevertheless demands to check her bag after the alarm sounds. A noose is left on her door handle. Even the Black cafeteria worker is pleasant to everyone else but gives Jasmine attitude. Not that Gail’s experience is much better. Her colleague jokingly refers to her as Barack. She discovers porcelain figurines of Black caricatures in the dorm. Campus security wants to see her ID. Etc. Etc.

The following is technically a spoiler but demands discussion and critical analysis, because after all, what’s Microaggression’s Greatest Hits without blackface? Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) is Ancaster’s own Rachel Dolezal. She bonds with Gail instantly in their presupposed sisterhood. Liv’s true identity flies under everyone’s radar until she flunks Jasmine, an overachiever by all accounts. Jasmine files a grade dispute, casting a shadow on Liv’s candidacy for tenure. When Gail raises her reservations about Liv, she’s promptly shut down by a chorus of woke white colleagues. Still, Liv will remain racially ambiguous until her white mother shows up in Amish gear with her baby picture in hand.

It's unclear who exactly is the target audience first-time filmmaker Mariama Diallo has in mind. All the above-mentioned microaggressions are legit and extremely triggering for viewers of color. When shown in such relentless rapid succession, they are traumatizing to say the least. But if she intends this for white people’s edification, she’s going about it too subtly. At no point does anyone stop to call these transgressions out for what they are. No consequence – not even the psychological damage visited on the victims – is presented regarding any of these offenses. No one is held accountable. Such depictions are not likely to prompt even self-recognition, much less soul searching, among those who have normalized and habituated this type of behavior.

Ms. Diallo’s conjuring of supernatural elements irrevocably undermines any serious and sincere discussions of institutionalized racism in an academic setting. Campus legend has it that Jasmine’s room has been haunted since someone was found dead there in the 1960s. Sure enough, she endures scary dreams and inexplicable marks on her body, further alienating her white roommate. Meanwhile, Gail finds maggots everywhere she looks; and creepy hooded Amish people constantly lurk in the background after dark. The film makes it so easy to write off the real mental and emotional harm being done and blame the literal bogeyman. Surely Ms. Diallo understands this is classic gaslighting.


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