Friday 1 April 2022

On demand: "Master"

Amazon's latest post-Peele proposition Master follows Netflix's Dear White People and The Chair in identifying the college campus as a renewed site of American tension. (Consider the various hullabaloos around identity politics, cancel culture and Critical Race Theory.) Writer-director Mariama Diallo adopts a two-pronged narrative strategy to port us directly into the eye of the storm. In Diallo's Chair strand, Regina Hall wrestles with the pressures of being appointed the first Black housemaster (a term that has... connotations) at the venerable Ancester College; to her mounting horror, she finds the commitment to racial equality goes no deeper than a few words on a press release. In the Dear White People strand, Ancester student Zoe Renee finds her first-term nerves - not knowing where she is, nor really who she is - exacerbated by her race, the callous indifference of her Caucasian dormmates, and the expectations others have of her. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that Master is striving to be two movies simultaneously. There's some idle sorority chatter about a witch who was hanged on this site, and the student who fell under her spell at precisely 3:33 in the morning - purest horror-movie hokum. Yet this also sits side-by-side with a straight-faced dramatic examination of the everyday racism faced by the Hall and Renee characters. The film's been positioned and sold as a genre piece, but it's neither structured nor paced as such; at best, it's only ever in the region of genre-adjacent.

It's not that the two strands cancel one another out, but you can feel them getting in each other's way, and often flat-out tripping up any push for compelling momentum. The slowburn quality will likely repel anyone who heads this way expecting another Urban Legend or Sorority Row; it feels mostly like Diallo giving herself time to figure out just how hard she wants to lean into the horror angle. (As it is, the schlockier aspects - ooky nightmares, icky maggot infestations - come over as rote, off-the-shelf placeholders.) Recognising that there's something of interest in here somewhere, the performers commit to finding it. Renee is a valuable new face, at the dreamier end of sensitive, and Hall, attempting something more dramatic than we're used to seeing from her, has a good bedside speech on residual trauma ("It's America, it's everywhere"). Even she, though, seems stumped by a late, torn-from-the-headlines twist ("This is a lot"), and you can hear the air whistling out of the whole thing in the closing twenty minutes. Nothing matches the assurance of The Chair, a series compiled by people who've been in the industry for a good decade, and felt confident enough to make merry with some of the more absurd contemporary discourse. Though she earns marks for her final needledrop, Diallo appears terrified throughout of being seen to lighten up, lest she appear frivolous or flippant around the most contentious of topics. Jordan Peele's early career has demonstrated that you can have (a good deal of) pointed fun with similar material, but Diallo is visibly still feeling out who she is and what she wants to do in this field. For better and worse, this is freshman stuff.

Master is now streaming via Prime Video.

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