Mariama Diallo was walking the streets of New York City when she ran into a former professor of hers — a college “master” — from when she was an undergraduate at Yale University.
Back then, the term “master” was a title used for the heads of residential colleges. Although Yale did away with the term in 2016, replacing it with “head of college,” Diallo was struck by how, almost instinctively, she referred to the familiar figure as “master,” as she had so many years before.
“While I was a student it was, for the most part, normalized and just really accepted,” Diallo says. “In that moment it slapped me in the face how bizarre and sick and twisted the whole thing was.”
In that moment, beyond the walls of the Ivy League institution, she was aware of the weight that the title carried and the eerie feeling that accompanied it. She thought about how enslaved Black people had used the same title to refer to their captors.
“As much as I really liked that person, it felt like this almost abusive thing on the part of the university to have thrust upon 18-year-olds when they are first coming into themselves as adults,” Diallo says. “It only became clear to me all those years later.”
She was immediately inspired to write her debut film with the same title, which is rated R and premieres on Friday, March 18, on Prime Video. Diallo is also its director.
Master is a horror film that follows two Black women as they navigate Ancaster College, an elite, predominantly white college in Massachusetts that’s as old as the country itself and steeped with antiquated traditions. Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall) is the fictional institution’s first Black female master, while Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee) is a new freshman.
“The problem with Ancaster which we see in the film is it’s not truly committed to any kind of revision of its practices or its traditions,” Diallo says. “It’s not interested in revolutionizing itself, of moving into the future. It’s just interested in exploiting Black women.”
The Chronicle spoke recently with Diallo about why she chose the genre of horror, her own experiences as an undergrad, and her message for Black women in higher education. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the film, we see the two main characters navigate the complexities of being Black at a predominantly white institution. What were some of your experiences as a Black student in a mostly white space?
On the granular level of what we see Jasmine go through, a lot of that is very similar to what I experienced when I was an undergraduate. The microaggressions were really flying a mile a minute, and they were coming from all directions — not just from the people who were quite obviously malicious, but a lot of the supposedly friendly people would say stuff that constantly reinforced your awareness of how they see you and how they don’t see you.
I would say that what we see in the film is like a fraction of what I and probably most of the other Black students experienced.
Why did you decide to name the movie Master? What is the title’s significance to you?
The title Master was the earliest thing about the film that I knew I really wanted to do. Coming out of that run-in with the “master,” that was the first thing that really hit me and stayed with me. I found it so compelling and provocative of a term because of all of the meanings and definitions that I could apply to it. There’s the way that it was used in the university sense, which is the title of this position. There’s obviously the historical use of it when we think back to slavery. But you can also think about it as the action to master something.
In the film that’s a lot of Gail’s dream. She’s trying to master. It just felt like a very three-dimensional, powerful term, and I knew that I wanted to consider it through the perspective of a Black woman being anointed with this title because I just thought that would bring so many layers into the examination.
The film takes the audience between two perspectives, a freshman in college and a new faculty member. Those are such different journeys. Why did you choose to tell the story that way?
It felt like I couldn’t tell the full story of the kinds of horrors that a place like that exhibits upon Black women without considering it from two sides of a generational divide. My mom is a retired academic and spent her entire professional career in New York working in academia. There are aspects of her experience that I definitely drew from and put in the film.
So, in telling my story, I also had to tell her story and the story of some of the Black women professors who reached out to me and helped me and who I observed from a distance when I was a student there as well.
It just felt like the most complete telling of that story had to look at someone who had “succeeded” in the system, which would be Gail. What does it mean to succeed, and at what cost? And then look at somebody who’s just going into the system, and what that means for Jasmine.
What do you hope that viewers in the world of higher education take away from this film?
As far as the Black women who are in higher education, who are really some of the core people I’m trying to speak to with all my heart, my overarching message to them is “you’re not wrong.”
One of my primary objectives, perhaps without even being consciously aware of it, is bringing into the light all of this stuff that happens in the shadows and all of these small acts of invalidation that we often swallow and then sometimes wonder, “Did that really happen? Or am I exaggerating?”
To Black women, I say, “You’re not wrong,” especially Black women in academe. And to everyone else in broader academia and for those who may not be as clued in as to what’s going on, I hope that there can be a little bit of an awakening. If this film can just even do the tiniest bit to illuminate what their friends and their colleagues are perhaps dealing with on some level, then that would be great.
Did you consult any academics, particularly Black women in academe, when you were writing the movie? If so, what did you ask them?
The only academic I consulted in making the film was my mom. I came to her with a lot of practical questions about the mechanics of a tenure review, for instance. She helped me a lot in keeping some of those particulars grounded in reality, while still being a horror film.
We talked a lot about her experiences and her struggles at her own institution and the way she was gaslit by her coworkers. She had some very traumatic experiences there where she was invalidated by colleagues, where her own professional advancement was attempted to be obstructed by white coworkers who had a bias against her. There was a lot that we spoke about in terms of the experience of being a Black professional in the academic realm.
There were a lot of ways you could’ve portrayed this story line. Why did you choose horror?
I love horror films. It’s always been a genre that I gravitate towards. But even so, you have to be very careful and intentional about how you apply it, and I never want to do something gratuitously. I really had to find a justification within the actual material of the film for why I wanted to picture it and tell the story a certain way.
When I was thinking about my own experience, the character of Gail, and the location of the school in this town that has a history that goes back to the Salem era, it was all demanding to be told in this horror tone. The events of the film and the atmosphere of the location were all lending themselves to a horror framework. I wanted to make a film that, in its tone and in its aesthetic, was also replicating the emotional experience of the characters. What we see them go through is a horror.