I have wanted to watch the film Master, starring Regina Hall, written and directed by Mariama Diallo, since it first came out last spring on Prime video. Something always came up--which is fine.
Everything in its time.
I finally got to watch it this evening and am really glad I did.
The film has not done well on the critics’ circuit, which is understandable. I suspect, as Don’t Look Up was accused of, the film is too on-the-nose for comfort.
Perhaps a spoiler alert: the film is about a black woman, Gail Bishop, who is installed as headmaster of a university student house while a young black woman, Jasmine Moore, is matriculating. The only other black person that we see in a position of relative authority at the university is a black female literature professor, Liv Beckman.
I will note here that all three of the female leads are relatively light skinned. The black people on campus who are in positions of what we commonly think of as servitude (lunch lady, cleaners) are all darker skinned.
The director seems to attempt a misdirect of the audience by introducing immediately the legend of a white woman who was accused of being a witch dying on campus in the 18th century and haunting campus. Jasmine is assigned the room where she lived. A few years before, a first-year student reportedly jumped to her death at 3:33 am when the “witch” is believed to have come for her, to take her to hell. Jasmine’s investigation into the university’s history reveals, however, that a black woman, the first to attend the university, was found hanged in the 1960s.
Admittedly, the film has a lot going on. Jasmine is assigned a white roommate, Amelia, who, though living in the same room as the "witch", never seems to suffer from the nightmares that Jasmine does. There’s a strange scene in the forest when Gail comes across Amelia who has been “doing something with boys” that is never disclosed and then leaves campus for good. Amelia’s sometimes boyfriend, who threw out names from Beyonce to Nikki Minaj to Lizzo in response to his rhetorical question, “Who are you?” when he first meets Jasmine, calls her cute and kisses her at a party where the all-white revelers decide to put on a song that is as offensive as they come once they realize she’s there. He never shows up after that scene. The next morning “Leave” is carved, and a noose is left on her door.
Meanwhile, Gail is finding that she has a maggot infestation in her university-appointed house while her only friend, Liv, who is up for tenure, is embroiled in a grade dispute with Jasmine.
Okay, the director is trying to cram in a lot!!!
Jasmine, rather than getting the heck out of Dodge, decides to stay on campus over Thanksgiving break when a cross is burned on the lawn of her dormitory.
I guess the audience is supposed to believe that it’s the obviously little-racists-in-the-making who are terrorizing this young woman. But for anyone who’s been around the block or two, it’s clear as soon as we meet her that it’s Liv who is causing all the mischief.
We understand how pervasive internalized racism is; the way that it can sometimes do more damage than the obvious—like being called Beyonce or Nikki Minaj or, as I was when I was in my 20s and decided to wear a head wrap to my waitressing job in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at a health food store/restaurant, run and patronized by an overwhelmingly white population, Aunt Jemima.
When I learned towards the end of the film that Liv has been engaging in blackface when her mother, a white woman from what I can only assume is an Amish community nearby, unloads her heart to Gail, I couldn’t help but think about Jess Krug, the history professor from George Washington University who last year was exposed as performing blackness.
Jess and I attended grad school together. I was in the Department of African Languages and Literature, since changed to the Department of African Cultural Studies (which, I’ll say it, makes it more palatable to white folks) while she was in the History Department, one of the best in the country. We took a class together, partied a bit together, when she was claiming that she was of Algerian descent and thus deserving of the full fellowship that she received. Jess performed blackness in blackface.
But I digress…
Liv diverts attention away from the fact that she does not meet the standards for tenure at the prestigious university by turning the attention of the guilt-plagued, overwhelmingly white governing body (there is the token black in Gail and the token Asian in a man whose name I don’t even know) to the plight of Jasmine, a young black woman at an overwhelmingly white institution.
And she succeeds in getting tenure.
(I do not want to suggest here that the work that professors do outside the narrow parameters of tenure evaluation is not valuable. One of the reasons that I do not devote more time to this blog is because I am very clear about the narrowness of those parameters and am reminded of a former colleague, a member of an indigenous nation whose tenure was in jeopardy because her work in the community was not thought to be “scholarly” enough—which for the record, is bullshit. I am speaking here to the way that those of us who learn to “play the game” will throw others under the bus in a heartbeat to achieve the goal of “success”.)
The director throws a bit of a wrench into the audience’s disdain for Liv when we learn that her father is black. From the looks of her, he must be. But she’s driven a young black woman to suicide!!
For me, her actions are unforgivable.
I went to one of those schools in upstate New York where I was one of 25 students of color. My first year I did not have money to go home for the holidays and raided refrigerators in other suites for food because I was broke.
I will concede that the conclusion of Master left a lot of questions unsatisfactorily unanswered.
Gail resigns her position at the university. She is there for those women whom she imagines cleaning the floors. She worked her ass to get where she is. WTF???!!!
Why should she just relinquish the ivory tower to those who claim it as their own—to the descendants of those masters?
What's more, undoubtedly, if she’s anything like me and the majority of women of color who land tenure track positions (or don't), she owes a bunch of money to the federal government. How is she gonna pay those bills?
What is her ass going to do? Become one of those salting the walkways or emptying the trash?
How is she honoring her ancestors’ sacrifices?
What’s the freaking plan?
The audience is left wondering as she saunters off into the night at the film’s end.
Where’s Jasmine’s mother whom we learn hasn’t heard from her in weeks?
Where’s Jasmine’ s community aside from the one other black woman whom she meets in the bathroom?
Let’s not even talk about the fact that there are no black men or black gender non-conforming people on campus? Or Let’s.
So, yes, the film is unsatisfactory.
I hated seeing Jasmine in that fucked up weave with an orange tint layered onto her magnificent mahogany skin.
I hated that neither she nor Gail had someone with whom they could truly confide.
I hated that they were rendered in such monochrome fashion.
But I think that Diallo should be commended for even beginning to take on the huge topic of Black women in academia, even if they are thinly rendered. For much too long we have been invisible.
It was nice to see myself on screen.
My hope is that others will take up the torch that you’re passing on.