MASTER Is About More Than White Terror: An Interview With Mariama Diallo

Injecting the Black gaze into the cinematic medium.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · March 18, 2022, 10:00 AM PDT
MASTER (2022)

The first feature-length project from Brooklyn-based filmmaker, Mariama Diallo, Master takes a sharpened eye to some of the oldest colonial American institutions: the colleges and universities that predate the existence of the country itself. The fictional Ancaster College is imagined as the elite of the elite, a step beyond Harvard- the oldest American university, founded in 1636- which is reduced in this story to an unspecified former president's "safety school." It represents a distillation of the Ivy League; the pedestal and prestige that, like all American institutions, hides a distinctly gothic underbelly.

For centuries, education has been a cornerstone of the American Dream: a critical step on the escalator of upward mobility (or, at the very least, has been marketed as such). But in truth, these institutions were constructed explicitly for white men of generational wealth, funded by profits derived from the slave trade, and in many cases literally built and initially operated by slave labor. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist icon and foremother of Black feminism, was owned by the first president of Rutgers University. As Black women continue to enroll and obtain advanced degrees at rapid rates, what does the experience of all that prestige look like from our perspective?


To this point, Master follows three Black women of different experience as their attempts to make themselves at home at Ancaster bring them into direct confrontation with the specters of white supremacy that continue to haunt the campus. Gail (Regina Hall) is recently tenured and hereby anointed the first Black "House Master" in the school's long history. Her colleague and confidant, Liv (Amber Grey), is right behind her on the academic-corporate ladder, coming up for tenure. Meanwhile, Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is the only Black freshman among the incoming cohort under Gail's guidance as well as a student of Liv's. While some may be tempted to focus on comparisons to Get Out, to do so would miss the story being told specifically about what it means to be Black with other Black folks in white-dominated spaces. So often, such institutions are heralded as beacons of excellence and achievement. Master invites us to ask at what cost?

FANGORIA caught up with writer-director Mariama Diallo to discuss working with legends, the relationship between horror and comedy, how white institutions set Black folks up to fail, and the counter-narratives offered by Black horror.

What was it like working with Regina Hall? You both have backgrounds in comedy.

The thing that I'm so happy to be able to say, Regina's persona that you see [on screen]--- that's Regina. She is truly, genuinely warm, funny, irreverent, kind, curious. She would crack us up all the time. She's just a really wonderful, creative, down-to-earth person. She made friends with everyone, just really part of the community, and a very kind and empathetic person. So it was amazing working with her. And that was very helpful for me because, you know, this being my first feature, there was a lot that's daunting about it. And working with somebody who's had such an incredible career like her is also intimidating at the outset, and she just allowed me to let go of that part of my anxiety because she really just felt like a friend very, very early on. And so that was really wonderful.

I'm interested in your perspective on the relationship between horror and comedy.

I think the balance in Hair Wolf tilts towards comedy, and then it's also drawing from horror aspects. But then there are a few other things, you know, on Random Acts of Flyness [that are] kind of more in the horrific space. I really do like the relationship between horror and comedy because they're so visceral. I'm somebody who can get stuck in my head, and I could live there all the time, and so to work in a medium that is really predicated on the physical response—and obviously, you know, you watch a film and ideally you're still thinking about it afterward. But to have to challenge myself to enter a space that is, you know, emotional, and that is about surrendering a little bit to the illogical was really fun for me. And I think that comedy, in terms of that rollercoaster ride of a horror film, goes so well because it's also [concerned with] the release, you know….


Right, and whenever I watch a horror [movie] that gets the comedy, it's so good. Get Out being, I think, the pinnacle of it.


In Master, it's clear that you're approaching the academic institution as a microcosm of America and the violence of white institutions, but the film is also overtly concerned with the ways we as Black folks sometimes fail each other. Can you speak to the story you wanted to tell specifically about Black womanhood across difference?

Yeah, you know, I think that the real sort of seed of the film started with Gail, and Gail being named a "Master" at this school and being promoted into this position and given this dubious distinction and then kind of seeing what happens to Gail as she's grappling with what it means to be a master in that space. And so from there, Jasmine's story came, and I think that I kind of just knew and colored in from my experience, the kind of pressures that those kinds of institutions place on the individual to push forward, to be the example, the shining example. And then how that can create distortions and behavior that then lead you to fail somebody who you might, [if] given a different setting, realize that you have to protect.

So I think that it was a necessary component of the story that was being told. And I think that it's just a dynamic that I've seen happen and be repeated, that when you're in a space that makes quite explicit how limited the opportunities for you or people like you are, you respond in one way or another, and your reaction leads you out of intuitive, instinctive behavior and it leads you to fail people. Unfortunately, like you said, we see that happen several times over the course of the film from several different characters. There's the moment in the tenure meeting when Gail is effectively turned on someone who we meet as her friend. There's the advice that Gail [gives] to Jasmine [that she thinks] is helpful, that is, you know, the wrong advice. Or even when Jasmine—we see Jasmine run into Sascha (Kara Young), the only other Black student, and their interaction when it's interrupted by Jasmine's two white friends, Jasmine's readiness to kind of distance herself from Sascha. It's this space, it really creates unnatural behavior. And it's really causing the women to fail themselves and each other.


Both in the film and in real life, racism essentially functions as a form of spellcraft. Your characters- and really, all of us- are haunted by the phantasmagoria of the racist imagination. What do you think the role of Black horror is in combating or countering said spellcraft?

Well, you know, I think that it's the counter-narrative. I think that for so long, we haven't been able to speak back, and we certainly haven't been able to speak back in the medium of horror. And so I think that injecting the Black gaze into the cinematic medium, and especially through the lens of horror, is incredibly powerful because horror and filmmaking in general is also a form of spell-making. You know, it's hypnotic—

Like a type of conjure, right.

It's a type of conjure, yeah. And so it's an antidote almost, you know. I can, ideally, get to hypnotize an audience and have them come along on this dream-slash-nightmare that I've created for an hour and a half. And I can even- outside of the realm of language and logic- work within ideas, images, feelings, emotions, and push back against some of these representations of blackness and the violence of racism. Particularly as visited upon us in this case, in the horror genre. Horror is often not very good to Black folks. [We've been] very dispensable, or we're, you know, magical in a fake way. You know, [like] a psychic lady who's also kind of discounted and not taken seriously and is just a symbol. And so I think that being able to enter into this- force our way into this horror space thanks to Jordan Peele really proving that there are audiences out here who want to see this- that now we're putting our spells in the mix, which feels very powerful.

What are you excited about for the future of Black horror?

I'm excited for so many more people to come in. I'm excited for it to get weird. I'm excited for us to enter new stages and just try out all of the different kinds of horror and for Black filmmakers to really feel and be given the freedom to explore all of the different sides because, you know, we could have body horror, we can have the supernatural, the thriller. There are so many different ways to engage [with] horror.

And I think that from our experiences and some of the horror that we as a people have witnessed and what we have to draw on from our sort of ancestral memory, there's a lot that we can bring to it. And there's a lot that we can work out, not even just based in America, but also in going back to Africa and nations around the world. There are a lot of stories that come out of our history, and I think that there's something really cool [like] in Black American folklore, where horror lives alongside the regal and the devil is just a character that's walking down the street, and he can catch you, but you can also outsmart him. I just think that we know horror, so I'm excited for all the voices to continue rushing in.

Master is now in theaters and streaming on Prime Video.