Mariama Diallo’s remarkable new horror film, “Master,” is in part about navigating the often dual feeling of accomplishment and inferiority as a Black female freshman on a white college campus. But at age 28, Diallo admits she still grapples with that same slippery sense of achievement, years after her Yale education.
The writer-director has only recently come to terms with this feeling after saying in a previous interview that she viewed her young protagonist at a less relatable distance. “Hearing back my earlier response there, I feel like I was a little bit full of shit,” Diallo quipped as she settled into our Zoom conversation.
She noted scenes in “Master,” which streams on Prime Video Friday, that echo the casually racist scenarios she encountered and ignored in college. “And there could have been even more,” Diallo added. “I had to pull back some of them, so that it’s not just a complete onslaught. The speed at which they come … It’s like getting hit by arrows. If I didn’t have the armor up, I would’ve collapsed in a heap.”
Truthfully, Diallo is still working through 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 soon after they moved into their beautiful New York apartment that she found for a low pandemic price on StreetEasy. It began over a Persian rug on which the couple disagreed.
In the midst of quarantine and protests about George Floyd’s murder happening right outside their new home with “the tallest ceilings I’ve ever had in my life,” Diallo recalled, she felt a conflict that was difficult to articulate. “It was this really jarring dichotomy to be in this super bougie, super fancy home, that I loved,” she said. “But also set against the backdrop of the most hateful expression of racism that felt almost directed personally against me and my family and everyone I loved and cared about.”
This “apocalyptic” moment was when Diallo realized that her and Dickinson’s quarrel had nothing to do with carpeting. “We stopped at a certain point and were like, ‘Hang on,’” she said. “‘This is not what we’re mad about and this is not what’s upsetting. It’s not about the rug. It’s about the fact that we’re under siege and we’re frazzled. I’m stressed.’”
With this clarity, the tension between the two subsided and they joined the protesters outside. The scenario became an impetus for “White Devil,” the couple’s 2021 black-and-white horror short. But the broader anxiety stemming from a Black woman’s tenuous success amid white supremacy and, even further, how that can weaponize Black women against one another are all brought to the fore in the astounding “Master.”
In one corner, the film observes Jasmine (Zoe Renee) as she embarks on a hopeful academic career at Ancaster, a prestigious university in a Salem-esque town. While the audience clocks each microaggression she encounters — like when her white roommates smugly leave her to clean up after them and pay for pizza they all eat — she responds with a half-hearted smile to not bring additional attention to herself. She also laughs along with them when they tell her they only made up the urban legend about the ghost of a Black witch who’s haunted the campus grounds for centuries, an eerie so-called fable that looms throughout the entire film.
Jasmine is so committed to this act of projecting strength, as Diallo describes it, that she disassociates herself from concepts of race and how it manifests in elite spaces she’s proud to be a part of as well as in the media she consumes. It even happens when one of few Black professors on campus (Amber Gray) compels her to think about it in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” and attempts to connect with her on the basis of their race. After all, there’s the story of a biracial Black witch named Tituba in Maryse Condé’s “I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem,” who was persecuted alongside and as harshly, or even more so, as Hawthorne’s white heroine.
Diallo has been fascinated by Tituba’s story ever since she read her mom’s copy of Condé’s book that she had lying around their house growing up. “I was like, ‘Ooh,’” she said, recalling her first experience with the narrative. “It’s this fictionalized account, but this interplay … 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 wouldn’t be something Jasmine would be willing to discuss either way. “I’m from the suburbs,” she defensively replies to her professor in a moment that could easily be read as aligning herself with whiteness and pointedly rebuffing Black camaraderie.
“I think Jasmine’s response is this messed up, like, ‘Well you think I’m like that, but I’m superior to that,’ and this is an identity that 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 screenplay for “Master,” experiences she once buried emerged at the top of her memory. “I think Jasmine is always trying to project strength and ‘I’m OK,’ and this broken concept of success, and I was doing it myself,” she said. “But I’m coming to terms with the fact that there’s a lot of myself in Jasmine.”
Of course, the heightened horror elements in the film — Jasmine’s petrifying nightmares of the old Ancaster landscape and the suffering Black witch that isn’t just a tale, for instance — are less accessible to the general viewer. But their subtext will certainly be clear to particularly Black female audiences that have been stifled by cultural traumas that persist today.
There’s also the agony of the Strong Black Woman epitomized in a character like Gail (Regina Hall), a professor and newly minted master of the residence hall who, like Jasmine, enters Ancaster as an emblem of progress. But also like her younger counterpart, Gail’s hope soon fades as she experiences everything from elevated incidents like finding maggots and the ghost of an enslaved Black woman in her new home to more pedestrian dread like learning her one 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 amelioration cannot thrive in spaces where Black success is consistently interrogated and ill-fated. Subsequently, each instance of Blackness is isolated from the other. “At an institution like that, there are these not accidental barriers to Black women coming together,” Diallo said. “It’s this concept of limited resources and what you can have for yourself and is it a threat to not be 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 this film’s case, an increasingly terrifying series of events of both the uncanny and known variety. “It’s really playing out to a more extreme degree than in real life,” Diallo said. ”But the way these institutions commodify identity and race also makes particularly the Black people, people of color, Black women respond in a way that’s not natural. It’s just what you have to do.”
As a result, “Master” is a horror film that holds several themes on race at once, the latest in a trend of films Hollywood seems to be greenlighting in droves as evidenced with recent offerings like “Them,” “Candyman” and “His House.” Even Diallo admitted that it’s “with varying degrees of … are you just riding a wave?”
She’s clearly given this some thought.
“I was like, ‘This is like Blaxploitation all over again,’” she continued, “where you get Black artists making an amazing piece of art and then all of this copycat Hollywood bullshit.”
Extremely fair point. But “Master” is far less gauche than many others. In Diallo’s hands, it is sophisticated and natural yet unhinged when it needs to be with a shocking payoff. Perhaps that’s because she grew up absorbing every terrifying tale she could find, including “The Green Ribbon” from novelist Alvin Schwartz’s “In a Dark, Dark Room: And Other Scary Stories,” and “The Sixth Sense,” which she recalled watching in a movie theater with her mother.
“I was slumped in my chair, just suffering halfway through the film,” Diallo said with a big smile. “[My mom] was like, ‘We can leave, if you want.’ But I was like, ‘No, we’ve got to stay.’ But also, I’m having a heart attack.”
But that’s the kind of dichotomy that thrills her as both a filmmaker and a horror lover. “I love that feeling of the stakes feeling so high,” Diallo said. “For that amount of time that you’re in the theater, your life feels threatened, your concept of the world and what’s possible feels threatened, and it can shift or expand.”
No wonder “Master” feels so visceral.