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“I Would Love for Horror to Be My Home, But I Want to Be Bi-Coastal”: Mariama Diallo on Master

Regina Hall in Master by Mariama Diallo.Regina Hall in Master by Mariama Diallo.

The racist roots of Ivy League academia are molded into an intangible boogeywoman in writer/director Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master. While the film takes place on the fictional campus of Ancaster—located in the greater Boston area—much of the film’s insights on matters of race and gender stem from Diallo’s own undergraduate experience at Yale. In fact, the titular term “master” refers to what would more commonly be known as “head of house,” or the senior member of a college within a wider university system. If this term still seems convoluted and archaic, it’s likely because it’s largely a British custom, with only four universities in the U.S. having adopted the term. With the exception of Rice University in Texas, the other three Harvard, Princeton and Yale—are all Ivies. Between 2015 and 2017, all four U.S. universities changed their “master” titles to reflect an effort toward racial sensitivity—though in an entirely superficial manner.

Meaningless initiatives toward “inclusivity” and “representation” on campus plague Jasmine (Zoe Renee), an incoming Ancaster freshman who immediately senses hostility among her overwhelmingly white classmates. Though Jasmine thoroughly understands the clumsily racist and alienating antics of white people from growing Black up in the suburbs, there’s an additional sinister force at play here. According to campus lore, a witch by the name of Margaret Millett was hanged in the gallows that once stood on the school’s grounds. Every year, she chooses one freshman to drag to hell with her—and Jasmine begins to fear her ticket has already been punched. 

Master analyzes the position of Black academics simultaneously thwarted by and upholding an institution that has never served them, particularly when it comes to Ancaster’s first Black “master” Gail (a measured yet mighty Regina Hall) and aspiring tenure-track professor Liv (Hadestown’s Amber Gray). Both women navigate the numerous limits and token advantages of being Black on campus, with the added pressure of supernatural specters and the very real eeriness of Gail finding herself moving into the “master’s house.” 

Diallo spoke with Filmmaker via Zoom ahead of the film’s January 21 Sundance premiere. Master will be available to stream globally on March 18 through Amazon. 

Filmmaker: I know Master is loosely based off of your own Ivy League experience, right down to having a “master” for your residential college. Did you mine your own interactions with classmates and professors, or did you just let a purely creative process guide the characters’ dialogue and dynamics? 

Diallo: When it came to creating the characters, and rounding them out as fully dimensional people, I definitely drew directly from my own experiences—even down to names sometimes. You know, not specific names tied to specific people, but I would grab different pieces from everything in the swirl of my experience, because it helped furnish the [film’s] reality. But once the characters were created, they took off from there, the narrative went where the characters took it and it expanded from that point. 

Filmmaker: I mean, I went to a liberal arts college, and while I was there students were fighting tooth and nail to get the administration to do something actually productive like, say, renaming dorm buildings and the dining hall so that they no longer bear the namesake of slave owners. I don’t think that ended up happening until years after I graduated, but while I attended there were definitely a glut of “inclusivity” seminars and student groups. I actually thought that video segment in Master was hilarious, because of how true it rang about the hollowness of campus “activism.” Did this also ring true when it came to your own academic experience? 

Diallo: Yeah, I really love that part, and I’m glad it seems like it also landed for you. But to me, it really epitomizes the flabby engagement with an actual progressive racial movement. You ask for one thing, and what you get is a glossy video that was hastily put together by the administration. I mean, that certainly comes from my experience when I was an undergrad. Similarly to you, a lot of the measures that were later won by students were not achieved while I was there. Like, for instance, there’s no longer the “master” title at Yale, which was taken down because of student movements. That happened probably about five years after I graduated.

Filmmaker: I mean, how hard could it possibly be to designate money away from sports teams to go put some new plaques up? 

Diallo: It’s weird, because most of it has got to be psychological, you know? If there were a clear financial incentive, that would be one thing. But a lot of times, there’s this hidden body that students and most people on campus are not observing. Which are the trustees, and the silent army of wealth and white supremacy that built these institutions—besides the people who actually built them—and are protecting them. That’s probably the invisible foe that doesn’t make sense. Like, why would they not take a name off of this building? It seems like everybody wants it off, but that’s actually a little bit inaccurate. In actuality, of course, there are people who call the shots and have the money who want things to remain as they are. That’s part of what I’m talking about in Master—this layer of control and menace hidden behind the polite veneer of a wealthy institution like Ancaster. 

Filmmaker: A lot of these trustees are also probably descendants of these slave owners. 

Diallo: Or if they’re not, they fancy themselves to be in a sort of spiritual kinship with some of these originators of the college, which I think is why then you get resistance for what on its face is a completely intuitive change. 

Filmmaker: I also would love to speak about the use of North Eastern witchcraft mythology and how you effectively turned that on its head in the film. I mean, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials was Tituba, a Black woman, yet the landscape of witch-based horror is deeply entrenched in white women’s martyrdom. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely a historical tragedy steeped in misogyny—but I wanted to ask you about your approach in centering Blackness in this story of witchcraft. 

Diallo: I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve always been drawn to the story of Tituba. I’ve been really intrigued by that aspect of this particular witch hunt, because it’s a very good metaphorical device for the way in which Black and white women are co-inmates in the jail of misogyny. There’s still this tension and oppression, this push and pull. There’s this dynamic of the victim’s victim, which Tituba is a great example of. She had less power than the girls she looked after, who were the ones who accused her and set the whole chain of events in motion. But she also did have a certain power, because she was one of the few survivors of that entire witch trial. She admitted to being a witch, which saved her life, so she had a sort of power of self-determination. And she probably understood a lot better than the others who were accused and executed that the way that others see you—and how you let others see you—determines everything about your life. That was actually an even larger component in the film’s original backstory. I wrote in a fictional character meant to be a Tituba stand-in,that was part of this lore of Margaret Millet, and there was this other level of a woman who accused Margaret Millet who was a Black woman. But with everything else going on in the film, there just was not the space to include all of that, so that storyline got trimmed. Witch mythology is really fascinating to me, because obviously there’s an incredible target on your back as somebody accused of being a witch. But there’s also power in being a witch, and it’s a very fine line to walk.

Filmmaker: In a 2018 Nylon interview, you are quoted as saying, “Oh gosh, I’m kind of creating this niche for myself as the sort of hair woman.” This was specifically in reference to your 2018 short Hair Wolf, as well as your “Bad Hair” segment on Random Acts of Flyness. While it’s much less pronounced within Master, the politics of “good” versus “bad” hair are clearly there. For example, Jasmine first walks on campus with natural hair, then relaxes it after her peers react coldly to her. She eventually sports her natural hair again, but I wanted to ask: What about this motif felt particularly important for you to communicate? 

Diallo: There is a very intentional story that I’m trying to tell through Jasmine’s decisions around her hair. But there’s also a disclaimer that I want to start with, which is that outside of this film, I don’t think that it has to mean anything. I’m glad that we’re at a point in the conversation now where it’s a little bit less binary—[the assumption] that natural hair signifies a liberated person, and that a person who straightens their hair isn’t presenting their true self. But in specific cases, people make decisions about their appearance that are entirely tied to how they’re feeling and how they want to be perceived. And with Jasmine, straightening her hair early in the film really represents a way in which she’s shrinking herself. And I hope it’s introduced subtly enough because it’s not meant to hit anybody over the head—for me, it’s just a symptom. It’s one of the early symptoms of what the school is doing to her, and it’s really about her effort to make herself small and be perceived as approachable and non-threatening. It’s also a mechanism of control. Then, later in the film, when she stops doing it, it’s because she’s gotten to a place where that clenched-fist control over herself is no longer possible—there’s too much going on elsewhere in her life for her to control the way that she’s perceived.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious about how the film was lit, because it creates these stark, gorgeous shadows that add to Master’s ominous tone, while never washing out the actors’ expressions or obscuring their interactions. 

Diallo: A lot of this really grows out of the true collaboration between myself and our DP Charlotte [Hornsby]. We had worked together on Hair Wolf and we’re both very drawn to rich color palettes, but we also wanted to be very intentional about which colors we were pulling out of our world. Obviously, that also comes from the collaboration with our production designers, Meredith [Lippincott] and Tommy [Love]. But what really resonated for me are the rich, woody browns, hunter green, cracked leather, deep red. We wanted to build a world playing with this old boy’s club—that library feeling that is so familiar when I think back to college, the tactile nature of all of those memories and those colors. That palette was very important for me to transpose onto the film so that you’re also getting that experience, and it’s bringing you into the world in that way. 

Filmmaker: According to a recent Variety write-up, you used to be a self-professed theater kid. Did that affinity influence you to cast the great Amber Gray from Hadestown, or was it a funny twist of fate? 

Diallo: OK, I loved that piece—I’m so thankful and it’s wonderful—but that was the one thing I read where I was like, “Oh, no, I would never self-profess as a theater kid!” I did do theater, but my issue was always that I never really became a theater kid, so that was a little bit baffling to me. Maybe I misspoke, but somehow that happened—but may the record show I’m not [a theater kid]! But I mean, I do like theater. I saw Amber Gray in Hadestown, and what drew me to her was the strength of her performance. She was such a powerhouse, and she brought the house down. The way she played Persephone was so physical, and at times comedic, but then she could really hit you in the gut with the most incredible dramatic choice. And I knew that somebody who had that kind of range was really necessary for Liv, because she’s always doing about five things at once. You have to really keep an eye on her, and I Amber was immediately the person that made perfect sense for that role.

Filmmaker: Of course, it would also be great if you commented on your collaboration with Regina Hall, who is honestly a Black horror icon—but I actually don’t think she’s been in a horror film outside of the Scary Movie series and a thriller here and there. I’d love to know how the two of you got connected and what developing the film together was like. 

Diallo: Yeah, Regina is totally a Black horror icon and just a Black cinema icon, period. It’s crazy for me to think about how much her career has spanned and how long she has been a figure looming so largely in my mind. I mean, I saw the first Scary Movie in theaters when it came out. So, I’ve known Regina. I’ve always been aware of her as a performer, I’ve seen her films over the years. Especially in her early years, most of what I was seeking out from her were her comedic roles, which she does amazingly, then I had this really compelling turn and added insight into everything that she can do when I saw Support the Girls. It’s a really beautiful and complicated thing she pulls off with the performance. She’s so natural, so that really opened my eyes to all of these other facets of acting that she has so much talent in and she’s engaging with, and that she’s not interested in doing the same thing. Regina goes for it, she takes risks. And Master was one of those risks because it was like: Okay, here’s a first-time feature filmmaker, you haven’t heard of them, good luck. I felt a lot of intensity going into that meeting with her. I remember I sent her a letter making the case for why I thought that she would be an incredible Gail, and we sent it and got a response saying that Regina was interested and wanted to meet with me. The next day, I’m on a plane to L.A. This kind of thing did not happen in my life at all, but I thought, “Now’s the time, we’ve got to get Regina.” On that plane, I felt like James Bond, like I was on a mission. I was just sitting there—not eating, not drinking, just thinking, “Regina, Regina Regina.” I was really nervous to meet her, but we got to the restaurant and it was all good. She’s incredibly warm, the kind of person who puts people at ease immediately. There was a dog at the table next to us, and she was having little side chats with the dog’s owner. It was like sitting down with a friend, and I could really relax and tell her about my vision for the film. It felt like we were on the same page and that what I was trying to do was also something she was interested in exploring. 

Filmmaker: This question is a bit more loaded, but I think it’s necessary to confront: Is academia redeemable when the foundation it’s built on is so irredeemably rotten and evil? 

Diallo: I mean, that’s the question of the film. However, I think that academia is expansive and broad enough of a term that I can give a hopeful answer and say that yes, I do think that academia is potentially redeemable. When it comes to certain institutions, that’s what they really need to grapple with. It’s something that is not only real from my own experience—my mom worked in academia, as a professor, at an institution that was not an Ivy League, but a CUNY (City University of New York). It was nevertheless pulled into some of these same racial dynamics and bullshit, because the wealth of the institution is only part of the equation. It’s also about what the institution represents, and who is it truly trying to serve? There are a lot of band-aid solutions that are being enacted by academic institutions, and that is not going to be their path to redemption. But there are also serious reckonings that can happen. And I have to believe, because there are so many beautiful things that came out of academia for me. I’m really, really grateful for my college experience, for the friends and professors I met, the things that I learned. I actually had a very beautiful time, on a certain level, but like anything else in life, there was also so much else going on. Part of my own growth and evolution is making this film and digging back through those memories, looking past the surface level positivity, and looking at what else was going on.

Filmmaker: Finally, what should we look forward to from you in the future? Do you feel solidly at home in the horror genre at this point?  

Diallo: I would love for horror to be my home, but I want to be bi-coastal, let’s say. I would like a vacation home somewhere else. I love horror, but there are so many other genres that I would love to create, explore and play in. I wouldn’t imagine for myself a career exclusively focusing on horror films, though I do love them. And what’s next? Well, it’s become thoroughly clear to me that nothing in this world is guaranteed. But at the moment, what’s next for me is that I’m looking forward to writing another film—and it is in the horror space.

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