With “Master”, Mariama Diallo confronts the university experiences that still haunt her

Mariama Diallo’s remarkable new horror film, “Master,” is partly about navigating the dual sense of accomplishment and inferiority as a black freshman on a white college campus. But at 28, Diallo admits she still struggles with that same slippery sense of accomplishment, years after graduating from Yale.

The writer-director only recently accepted that sentiment after saying in a previous interview that she saw her young protagonist from a less relatable distance. “Hearing my previous reply there, I feel like I’m a little full of shit,” Diallo joked as he settled into our Zoom chat.

She noted scenes in “Master,” which airs on Prime Video Friday, that echo the casually racist storylines she encountered and ignored in college. “And there could have been even more,” Diallo added. “I had to take some of them out, so it wasn’t just a full onslaught. The speed at which they arrive… It’s like getting hit by arrows. If I didn’t have the armor in place, I would have crumbled into a heap.

Truth be told, Diallo is still working on some experiences from her past that still haunt her today. That includes an argument she and her partner, filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson, had in June 2020 shortly after moving into their beautiful New York apartment that she found at a pandemic low price on StreetEasy. It all started on a Persian rug that the couple disagreed on.

Amid quarantine and protests over the murder of George Floyd happening right outside their new home with “the highest ceilings I’ve ever had in my life,” Diallo recalls, she felt a difficult conflict to articulate. “It was this really shocking dichotomy of being in this super candle, super posh house that I loved,” she said. “But also in the context of the most heinous expression of racism that felt almost personally directed at me and my family and everyone I loved and loved.”

This “apocalyptic” moment is when Diallo realized his feud with Dickinson had nothing to do with the carpet. “We stopped at a certain point and were like, ‘Wait,'” she said. “’That’s not what drives us crazy and that’s not what’s upsetting. It’s not the carpet. It is about the fact that we are besieged and we are exhausted. I am stressed.'”

With this clarity, the tension between the two eased and they joined the protesters outside. The storyline became an impetus for “White Devil,” the couple’s 2021 black-and-white horror short. But the broader anxiety stemming from the tenuous success of a black woman amid white supremacy and, even more, how it can weaponize black women against each other is all highlighted in the amazing “Master”.

Zoe Renee in “Master”.


In one corner, the film observes Jasmine (Zoe Renee) as she embarks on a hopeful college career at Ancaster, a prestigious college in a Salem town. As the audience times each microaggression she encounters — such as when her white roommates smugly let her clean up after them and pay for the pizza they all eat — she responds with a half-hearted smile so as not to draw further attention to herself. She also laughs with them when they tell her that they’ve only made up the urban legend about the ghost of a black witch that has haunted the campus for centuries, a so-called weird fable that hovers throughout the film.

Jasmine is so committed to this act of force projection, as Diallo describes it, that she dissociates herself from concepts of race and how it manifests in the elite spaces she is proud to be a part of as well as in the media they consume. This even happens when one of the few black professors on campus (Amber Gray) forces her to think about it in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and attempts to connect with her based on their race. After all, there is the story of a biracial black witch named Tituba in Maryse Condé’s “Me, Tituba, black witch from Salem”, who was persecuted alongside and as harshly, if not more, than the white heroine. of Hawthorne.

A 19th century illustration depicts the enslaved Barbadian Tituba in a room with three Puritan girls, Salem, Massachusetts, 1690s. One of the first women accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, she was imprisoned and later released.
A 19th century illustration depicts the enslaved Barbadian Tituba in a room with three Puritan girls, Salem, Massachusetts, 1690s. One of the first women accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, she was imprisoned and later released.

Provisional archive via Getty Images

Diallo has been fascinated by Tituba’s story ever since she read her mother’s copy of Condé’s book that she had dragged around their house growing up. “I was like ‘Ooh,'” she said, recalling her first experience with storytelling. “It’s this fictionalized story, but this interaction…it’s not just a story of white women in Salem.”

The filmmaker was quick to add that she’s not implying that Tituba is the mysterious witch plaguing Ancaster, though racial marginalization or oppression isn’t something Jasmine would be willing to discuss anyway. . “I’m from the suburbs,” she replies defensively to her teacher in a moment that could easily be interpreted as aligning herself with whiteness and ostensibly pushing back on black camaraderie.

“I think Jasmine’s response is a bit confusing, like, ‘Well, you think I’m like that, but I’m better than that,’ and that’s an identity she’s trying to assert.” , she said.

It’s also the type of survival mechanism familiar to many black women, including Diallo. As she developed the script for “Master”, experiences she had once buried rose to the top of her memory. “I think Jasmine is always trying to project her strength and ‘I’m fine’ and this broken concept of success, and I was doing that myself,” she said. “But I’m coming to terms with the fact that there’s a lot of myself in Jasmine.”

Of course, the film’s heightened horror elements – Jasmine’s petrifying nightmares of Ancaster’s ancient landscape and the suffering Dark Witch who isn’t just a tale, for example – are less accessible to mainstream audiences. But their subtext will certainly be clear to particularly black female audiences who have been suffocated by the cultural traumas that persist today.

Regina Hall and Amber Gray star in "Master"
Regina Hall and Amber Gray star in “Master”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There is also the agony of the strong black woman embodied by a character like Gail (Regina Hall), professor and new master of residence who, like Jasmine, enters Ancaster as an emblem of progress. But also like her younger counterpart, Gail’s hope quickly fades as she experiences everything from high incidents like finding maggots and the ghost of a black woman enslaved in her new home to more pedestrian fear like learn that his black ally on campus is a fraud.

The power that Gail only tenuously possesses inevitably fails her and Jasmine, whom she tries to help, in part because black unity and betterment cannot thrive in spaces where the Black success is constantly questioned and unhappy. Thereafter, each instance of Blackness is isolated from the other. “In an institution like that, there are these non-accidental barriers that keep black women from coming together,” Diallo said. “It’s this concept of limited resources and what you can have for yourself and is there a threat of not being the only one.”

It creates “a chessboard of white supremacy,” as Diallo called it, that sets up functionally volatile interactions between the few black people on campus and, in the case of this film, an ever-increasing series of events. terrifying both strange and known. “It really plays out to a more extreme degree than in real life,” Diallo said. “But the way these institutions commodify identity and race also in particular cause black people, people of color, black women to react in ways that are unnatural. It’s just what you have to do.

As a result, “Master” is a horror film that contains several racial themes at once, the latest in a trend of Hollywood movies seeming to be given the green light in droves, as evidenced by recent offerings like “Them.” , “Candyman” and “His Loger.” Even Diallo admitted that it’s “with varying degrees of…you’re just riding a wave?”

She clearly thought about it.

“I was like, ‘It’s like Blaxploitation all over again,'” she continued, “where you get black artists who do amazing artwork and then all this copycat Hollywood bullshit.”

Extremely fair point. But “Master” is much less awkward than many others. In Diallo’s hands, it’s sophisticated and natural yet unbalanced when it needs to be with shocking payoff. Maybe it’s because she grew up absorbing all the terrifying tales she could find, including novelist Alvin Schwartz’s “The Green Ribbon” “In a Dark, Dark Room: And Other Scary Stories” and ” The Sixth Sense,” which she remembered watching at a movie theater with her mother.

Regina Hall and director Mariama Diallo on the set of "Master"
Regina Hall and director Mariama Diallo on the set of “Master”

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

“I was slumped in my chair in pain halfway through the movie,” Diallo said with a big smile. “[My mom] was like, ‘We can leave, if you want.’ But I was like, ‘No, we have to stay.’ But also, I’m having a heart attack.

But it’s the kind of dichotomy that excites her as both a filmmaker and a horror lover. “I love that feeling of the stakes being so high,” Diallo said. “During the time you spend in the theater, your life feels threatened, your view of the world and what is possible feels threatened, and it may change or expand.”

No wonder “Master” feels so visceral.


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