“Master,” in which three Black women battle academia’s institutionalized racism in a supernatural context, joins the recent wave of films and TV series that explore the monstrous reality of racism in the United States through the horror genre (“Get Out,” “Us,” “Lovecraft Country,” “Candyman”). The film, which is competing in this year’s Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition category, was written and directed by Mariama Diallo, who joined TheWrap’s Brian Welk at our virtual Sundance studio, along with stars Regina Hall and Zoe Renee.
Hall stars as Gail, who has just become the first woman of color to be named “Master” (dean) of a residence hall at Ancaster College, an elite New England institution where Jasmine (Renee) is eagerly beginning her first year. Soon, both women discover that the college is cursed by the spirit of a woman who was lynched there hundreds of years ago. Gail and Jasmine go through terrifying experiences in which daily casual bigotry is compounded by nightmarish hauntings.
Diallo, whose debut short film “Hair Wolf” won a jury prize at Sundance in 2018, used her own experience as a Black woman at an elite, predominantly white college as inspiration to write the screenplay for her first feature. “I was lucky enough to meet, as professors, Black women who had been there for a while, and my relationship to them was really important,” she told TheWrap. “It was really important to me getting through the college experience. And there’s a lot that I could see through, you know, what little I could glean as a student, that they were also contending with at the same time.”
She added that academia, so often perceived as serious and important, can in reality be “hilariously petty,” which in her mind, made it a perfect setting. As for why she chose the horror genre, Diallo said that she’s always found it fun, but also sincere and truthful. “There’s something that I thought was very honest about portraying what Gail and Jasmine go through as a horror experience.”
Hall jokingly cut in to say how shocked she was when she read the script and learned what hideous things were in store for her character and Renee’s. “I saw this sweet face that Mariama has,” said the actress, who also stars in a second film playing at the festival, “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” “And I was like, I can’t believe you did it.”
Hall, of course, starred in four “Scary Movie” films and is extremely familiar with the trappings of the genre. She immediately trusted Diallo as a “true filmmaker” who could turn an ambitious premise into a compelling film: “My true thought was…this is gonna be good or really bad. But that is the leap of faith that you have fun taking.”
For Renee, working on her character helped her process some of the micro-aggressions that she’s experienced throughout her life. That wasn’t always easy, but in the end, she said “Master” was “very therapeutic” for her.
On a similar note, Diallo hopes that audiences will come away from her film thinking about what her characters have lived through — and what they believe the characters have lived through — but she also wants to leave space for viewers’ own interpretations. “I’m very much in favor of the viewer going on their own personal journey and coming to their own conclusions. Short of thinking I’m a fool, I sort of am alright with people thinking anything about the film,” Diallo said. “I’m trying to take us on a ride.”
TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is presented by NFP and National Geographic Documentary Films.