Minor spoilers ahead.
Stories of Black students facing racism at predominantly white institutions (PWI) have made headlines for as long as Black people have been able to inhabit these spaces. So it makes sense that when filmmaker Mariama Diallo set out to make her first feature, inspired by her time at a PWI, it ended up being a horror film. In Master, which premiered at Sundance and is now streaming on Prime Video, three Black women come face-to-face with the institutionalized racism that persists in the academic world. Although many of their experiences manifest supernaturally, they are rooted in reality.
Regina Hall stars as the title character, Gail Bishop, the first woman of color to be named dean—commonly referred to as “master”—of a residence hall at the fictional Ancaster College in New England. During Diallo’s college years, she also had a “master,” and in the construction of this film, she’s been able to interrogate that language and experience. “The master comes from the world of academia, but is more personally invested in you as a student, so it’s very sneaky. It’s not like you use the term master for the person who is in some kind of disciplinary position. They gave the most fucked up name to the nicest position,” Diallo tells ELLE.com. “So it’s like, ‘everyone loves their master.’”
Hall’s list of credits is extensive and wide-ranging—from the recent dramatic thriller, Nine Perfect Strangers to the Scary Movie franchise, romantic comedies, and another 2022 Sundance feature comedic film, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul. But this role is unlike any other we’ve seen her in. “I wrote a letter to Regina, making a case for why I thought she would be an incredible performer to play the role of Gail. And the next thing I knew, I was sitting across from her in L.A., having lunch, and feeling like I was with an old friend. Regina has a very powerful, positive energy. She’s very warm and invites people into her world. I didn’t feel like I was sitting with a celebrity. I felt like I was sitting with a future friend and collaborator,” says Diallo. “Regina likes to try new things, and she’s stretching herself, always, in all different directions. I was the happy beneficiary of her thinking this role sounded different from what she had done. And she was up for it, and up for the challenge.”
The film also features Zoe Renee as incoming freshman Jasmine Moore, whose excitement is gradually stifled as she experiences conflict with her roommate and becomes submerged in the school’s culture—one that seemingly emboldens its white students to use racial slurs around her, with no hesitation. Jasmine also finds herself clashing with one of the school’s few Black professors, Liv Beckman, played by Tony-nominated actress Amber Gray. Liv, too, struggles as the school council challenges her application for tenure, believing she’s under-qualified. In addition to the racism that they face in present-day, the women discover that there are supernatural powers at play too: The college is cursed by the spirit of a woman who was lynched there hundreds of years ago, who is now after Jasmine. And after Gail moves in on campus, she starts becoming haunted by visions of a Black maid who used to work at her new home. As a Black woman in the role of “master,” Gail must clean up Ancaster’s mess and make it look more inclusive than it actually is. Not only are these women haunted by their daily experiences with bigotry, but they’re also haunted by the past.
“I had to go through my memories and sit through it and wonder, ‘What was going on with you? What were you really feeling? What were you really experiencing? And what did you have to numb in order to get through this experience?’ I started unpacking all sorts of memories over the course of those years—and that was a horror film,” says Diallo. “There’s also this aspect of these ghosts, and this invisible sort of malevolent energy that surrounded me for much of my experience there, that I really needed to confront. I felt like the best way to represent it was using horror because emotionally, they lined up perfectly. I felt as if the horror was enhancing the story of me mining my own past for what I had chosen to ignore.”
Diallo is no stranger to the genre. Her debut short film, “Hair Wolf”—also horror—won the jury award for US Fiction Short at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. “I do think that horror is fun, or exhilarating, and it really provokes a physical response, which a lot of other film genres don’t necessarily,” the director explains. “So I do think that it’s a great medium for reaching people because people are into it.”
Despite the clear effective nature of horror to break through the noise and capture the public’s attention, Diallo didn’t necessarily make Master to educate white audiences or those who might not be as willing to do the work to learn about the true horror stories beyond the film. “I don’t want to sneak a message to somebody who doesn’t want to hear what I have to say,” says Diallo. “There was almost a moment where there was this idea of horror as a teaching tool for white people, and that would be the way that creators of color could find their way into the genre. Even though there’s so much that I’m talking about, and I want people to get from it, I also don’t want to teach. Because that still centers the white experience. It’s like, ‘Oh, there are all these Black characters, but they’re here to teach.’”
For many Black Americans, racism is a very real part of life that we know to be true, regardless of validation—still, having that validation, especially on a large scale, is valuable. Especially for those who face racism in spaces that are dominated by people who perpetuate it. “It can be very isolating when you’re experiencing things, and you’re observing things that you know are real, and you know are happening, but are not being seen necessarily by all the people around you,” says Diallo. She hopes that Black viewers feel some sense of validation in viewing this film. “One of the things that was so important for me was to say, ‘We’re not crazy. We’re not wrong.’”
Diallo is excited for viewers to experience Master and come to their own conclusions. “I think that the power of a film like this is to, at a certain point, stand out of the way of the film as the creator, and for it to be something that somebody can engage with on their own—on their own terms.” Regardless of what audiences decide, there’s no ignoring the film’s clear message: that the events of yesterday aren’t simply relics from history textbooks to be engaged with as text. Because in reality, they’re a direct reflection of the events of today.
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