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'Master' doesn't try to play it safe

Other things being equal, I prefer a movie that bites off way more than it can chew rather than one that sort of pushes some peas around on a plate and calls it a meal. If you’re going to be messy, do it because you’re ambitious.

Master is the feature debut from director Mariama Diallo, and it stars Regina Hall as the new dean of students at a fictional New England university that caters to an elite, almost entirely white clientele. We quickly learn the school has a dark history, being built on the same ground where a woman was once executed for being a witch, and rumor has it that the woman's ghost haunts the school, particularly one dorm room where one of the very few Black students on campus has just started living.

The university’s troubled past certainly extends to its racial history, and we don’t have to stretch to see how reflective that is of academia in our world today, with schools still struggling to address diversity and having little idea of the difference between actually fixing these problems and simply assuaging white guilt. But while this is the central issue in Master, it’s also very far from all the movie tries to tackle. Like a staircase at the Winchester House, there are scenes and storylines that go nowhere, there are characters who seem as if they’ll be important and then just end up not having much to do with anything, and there are subplots that are so jammed in that you’ll be surprised this is what they had in mind the whole time. The movie just needed another serious edit—big swings are great, but you can’t swing at everything without missing a whole lot.

But at least it doesn’t try to play it safe and boring. Diallo undoubtedly has talent, there are plenty of intensely creepy scenes and a few developments that thrive because of our general confusion. Master isn’t focused, but all of that swirling does lead to a provocative ending, one that isn’t optimistic for our larger society. We've got a lot of problems, and maybe some of them aren't getting fixed.

Master is on Amazon Prime March 18th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.