Social thrillers are a difficult business. They are tasked with examining the cruelties of oppression—and, in the most audacious instances, boldly questioning them—through the lens of suspense and horror. The genre requires filmmakers to pull off a delicate balance of insight and entertainment. In Master, the stylish and studied debut feature from writer-director Mariama Diallo, the genre has found an authentic voice. Centering on the psychological trauma of being Black at a prestigious New England college, the film articulates the gnawing anxieties that lay bare the sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always enduring terrors of racial discord in America. It is also a welcome look at the limits of the social thriller and what, if any, new lessons the genre has to bestow.
Opening on Ancaster, “a school nearly as old as the country,” Master, just released on Amazon Prime, trails the lives of three Black women over the course of an academic year as they confront microaggressions that sting, provoke, and summon sentiments familiar to any Black person who has trudged the mental battlefield of attending an elite, mostly white college. Paranoia mixed with doubt. Fear overtaken by confusion. The heavy pain of emotional overload. That feeling of everything and everyone closing in. Diallo, who attended Yale, scours this territory with a careful, patient awareness, toggling between realism and the supernatural horror that arises from the lived experiences of Black people dealing with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “terror of disembodiment.”
The plot unfolds when Gail Bishop (Regina Hall in a role of understated force) is promoted to “master” at one of the college’s residential houses. She’s the first Black faculty member to hold the position, and her promotion sets off a series of escalating encounters between her, a fellow professor up for tenure named Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), and Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an eager freshman looking to fit in. If Gail is the conscience of Master—and she very much is—Jasmine is its emotional center, its quivering heartbeat.
As the microaggressions accumulate, Jasmine becomes consumed by a piece of school folklore. It is said that a woman who was believed to be a witch died on the campus centuries ago and now haunts it, terrorizing a new freshman each year. But the reality of the myth is much closer to home, and it affords Diallo the perfect parallel to drive the narrative out of the past and into the fantastical: In 1965, Ancaster’s first Black undergraduate was lynched in the same room Jasmine occupies. Nodding to the violent history of white-on-Black hangings that were a form of eradication and public entertainment—and one of the nation’s original hauntings—Diallo molds her social thriller into a 21st-century ghost story.
Without giving away too much, I will say that lynchings are used in the film to both literal and cerebral effect, with Diallo deploying various aesthetic tricks so the audience may better understand the growing darkness that surrounds Jasmine and Gail. This happens primarily through the use of color—Diallo’s signature reds evocatively impress upon the mind—shadows, and alternating camera shots that tease dimension and depth. More broadly, the film exposes the pernicious nature of structural systems, particularly in higher education—how, why, and for whom they are kept in place. The implication is that those who attempt to push against systems of power are cursed in the very pursuit.
A critical question of the film arrives in the first quarter but holds its spark throughout to illuminate the very essence of a genre that, even at its most soul-rattling and demystifying, remains bound by a specific experience when focusing on Black people. One night when Jasmine returns to her room she is thrown for a loop. “Who are you?” a white male upperclassman asks as she enters. Almost immediately, other students—also all white, all of whom were invited over by Jasmine's roommate—obnoxiously lob responses that land like daggers. They shout the names of Black women who are often used as cliché placeholders for a certain image of Black achievement: Beyoncé, Lizzo, “one of the Williams sisters.”
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And because this era is also riddled with digital apparatuses (many of which we use daily, from Instagram to YouTube) that tell us how to live, who to be, and what we should and should not aspire to in a land that has, for the most part, persisted on lies, greed, and paradox it can sometimes be difficult to recognize your image in the mirror. To know who you really are. Ours is a nation bound to contradiction. So what can be a saving grace? I like to think it is the conviction of self that is the true stabilizer when faced with sudden dread. The audience watches as Jasmine tries to hold her footing, but the experience throws her off balance, and it’s that imbalance—questioning who she is and whether she belongs—that consumes her as the film twists to its surprising end.
Master is a social thriller, but because it is also a work of horror, it finds genuine thematic substance in the interrogation of the self. Within the bounds of whiteness, the story of Black people in America is fundamentally one of horror. How could it not be? This is why Black horror is squarely about the limits of human deliverance—less about the endpoint than its exacting toll.
At times, however, I do wonder if the genre of social thriller has gotten too relaxed in its recycled subversion of class unease, racial disharmony, and emotional terror. Revived by Jordan Peele’s 2017 blockbuster, Get Out, the genre has expanded on that interrogation through films like Tyrel (2018) and His House (2020), which flip mundane experiences into a vision more grotesque, more frighteningly real. Its themes are timelessly relevant, and because they define so much of how we understand social thriller films—a genre that must embrace realism, even as it experiments with it—they also limit what is possible (narratively, not visually).
I get that art allows others to better understand the toll of racial, class, and gender oppression. I get that it allows those of us who face it daily to feel a tinge of recognition. To feel seen. All of that is important. But the fact of the matter—for Black people, for trans kids, for women, for queer people, for the disabled, for anyone who is consistently at a disadvantage and told they are the problem—the lived reality will always trump the interpretation. The genre has a finite reach because it can only tell us what we already know.
Social thrillers have proven necessary counterweights to the progress America falsely champions, revealing the nation’s true nature through allegory. The horrors live among us. We see them on the news and encounter them on TikTok. Black pain is now optimized to go viral on the hour, every hour. As Jasmine learned, these confrontations are not easily thwarted. And even when one survives the twilight—if they’re fortunate enough to make it through, that is—physical and mental tolls linger. What was the cost of the passage? That is the final question Gail must reckon with on her own.
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