Three very different stories of the modern Black experience launched the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance this year, with mixed results. They all have performances that distinguish them from the crowd, and they all clearly come from a place of good intention—a desire for representation, to tell stories that have been too long ignored. The best of the bunch is the one that takes the most risks, a riveting genre experiment called “Master” that almost feels like a hybrid of “Dear White People” and “Get Out” as it announces a major new talent in Mariama Diallo. Sadly, the final act here gets a little clunky as the film bites off more than it can chew narratively and thematically, but the slow-burn set-up paired with stellar performances from Regina Hall and Zoe Renee keep it from completely falling apart.
Gail Bishop (the always-stellar Hall) has been named the new “Master,” or Dean, of a fictional New England university named Ancaster, and she’s the first Black one in the school’s history, one that she notes in a speech is as old as the country. Anyone who has spent time on the campuses of century-old institutions like this one can tell you that there’s something creepy about them in the middle of the night, something that feels just a bit off, and that’s the unease that Diallo leans into with her first feature.
As Gail is discovering some of the systemic racism at her level, a new student named Jasmine (the phenomenal Renee) seems to be dealing with something more primal in the stories of a witch who haunts her dorm room. As she too fends off the casual racism of her classmates, she hears stories of the tragedies that have happened in her room, turning what should be a welcoming atmosphere into a threatening one. Diallo occasionally dips her style into Giallo, turning the halls and rooms of the dorm into a nightmare.
Diallo attempts to capture an institutional and culturally embedded racism in higher education and largely white communities through a tale of the supernatural, but she avoids easy conclusions unlike so many of the Jordan Peele clones. It helps to have performers like Hall and Renee who know exactly what tone to strike. The script kind of comes apart at the seams at points—there are times in which it feels almost like a scene is missing, but that confusion could be intentional, designed to disorient the audience—and the final arc of the story feels clunky. Having said that, there’s a lot to admire in “Master,” a horror film that asks how we can possibly find equality if we don’t understand the historic forces that are making it impossible.
A much different college campus story unfolds in Carey Williams’ “Emergency,” which takes a tried-and-true buddy comedy formula and updates it for a new generation with a more urgent call for peace and understanding than its premise might initially suggest. It too kind of fizzles out in its final act as Williams tries to ring emotions that I’m not convinced the film has completely earned by that point, but the incredibly charismatic ensemble holds it together even as the lives of these young people are coming apart.
“Emergency” comes out of the gate like it’s going to be a new comedy classic. Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are old friends who seem to be growing apart as they get older. In college now, Kunle is the strait-laced student who may be realizing that he has more of an academic future than his buddy Sean. However, tonight, that’s not going to matter because both guys are going to do something that no Black person has done on their campus before—attend a series of parties across town, all on the same night. Before they can get started, they stop by their apartment and find something shocking: an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) on their living room floor. And their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) has no idea what’s going on.
Knowing they can’t just leave this possibly drugged girl in such trouble but scared to call the police because of the danger of doing so as a young Black man, they put the girl in a car and try to get her to safety. The girl’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) and her friends (Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham) on a night of increasing chaos.
The best parts of KD Davila’s script update a classic buddy formula with modern racial concerns. Sean and Kunle argue over how much they have to do to save this girl whose sister is basically racially profiling them while they’re helping. And the differences of opinion fracture the friendship further, revealing truths about both gentlemen. Both young stars are great—as are Chacon and Carpenter too—keeping us with “Emergency” even as it runs a little long through several overcharged endings.
There’s a similar sense in “892” that the main reason to see it would be for the performers, but the prodigious talents here are more overwhelmed by the manipulative, over-done filmmaking. It’s a true shame because this film houses the final performance from the wonderful Michael K. Williams, who proves again how often he could take a paper-thin character and imbue him with gravity just through his presence. There’s also a striking turn here from Nicole Beharie, who makes everything better, but these two talents can’t overcome how much this movie fails them and the people involved in the true story that it’s telling.
On July 7, 2017, a Marine named Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) walked into a Wells Fargo bank in Atlanta and passed a note to the teller that read “I have a bomb.” He allowed most of the people in the bank to leave, keeping only two employees, Estel (Beharie) and Rosa (Selenis Leyva), as hostages. He wanted the disability check he had been denied, but he mostly wanted an audience, calling the local news station and demanding a heavy police presence. He needed to tell his story, one of how veterans in this country are mistreated and disrespected.
The manner in which the United States treats those who have served it in its military is one of this country’s greatest shames, and I believe that co-writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin comes from a well-intentioned place in capturing this story of a traumatized soldier who the system let down. However, she tells Brian’s story in such a traditional, melodramatic, manipulative manner that it actually makes us feel further away from his plight than just reading about the tragedy. Overly edited and filled with flat, informational dialogue, “892” lacks grit and teeth despite Boyega’s best efforts to give Brian a jittery, uncomfortable energy. No one here is bad, but it’s just so hard to sell a movie in which Brian’s daughter sees her father on TV and says, “Daddy?” right on cue. It’s that kind of TV movie writing that’s self-defeating, designed to wring cheap emotions instead of earning them by realistically finally telling the story that Brian so desperately wanted us to hear.