For filmmaker Mariama Diallo, writing “Master,” a “scary drama” about black women navigating politics at a swanky New England college, was a way to weed out the microaggressions and racism she experienced during her college years had suppressed at Yale.
“I’ve had some similar experiences to the ones you see in the film, and I’ve had a lot of unpacking and processing since that time,” she said. “It kind of screamed at me to find out.”
Her debut film, which premiered at Sundance and will be shown in select theaters and on Prime Video Friday, stars Regina Hall as Professor Gail Bishop, the first black woman to hold the titular post at Ancaster College, an elite Northeast institution .
“I gained the master’s position from my own experience at Yale,” Diallo said. “It’s almost like a dean of studies, but some of them are tied to specific dormitories. It was normalized to students in a frightening way that was almost abusive in hindsight. You are imprinted into this system where you get a master and before you know it you are calling someone “master” and going to the master’s house to ask their advice. And that seeps into your consciousness in one way or another, no matter how the school may try to explain away the origins of the term.”
The story is deeply personal for Diallo, whose mother is a retired academic who has spent her entire professional career battling similar struggles to Gail’s. “I always knew I wanted to follow a black woman who was promoted into this role and grappled with all that that means,” she said. “What I’ve always found compelling about this was the apparent contradiction of a Black woman being proclaimed Master, when I think back to the historical sense of the word in this country.”
The film splits its narrative between the perspectives of Gail and Jasmine Moore (“Jinn” breakout Zoe Renee), an upbeat freshman who quickly finds the target of subtle and not-so-subtle racism coming at her from all directions: her fellow students, school staff and even the spirit of a Salem-era witch who is rumored to be making students suicidal.
“I think my experience was similar to Jasmine’s in a lot of ways,” Diallo said. “I almost, perhaps for emotional reasons of my own, kept Jasmine at a little distance and distanced myself from her by saying, ‘Well, Jasmine is fictional and her experience was so much worse than mine.’ Kind of ‘that’s Jasmine’s problem, I’m fine.’
“Making this film and even just talking about it now is this evolving process of learning more about myself,” she added. “On the smallest, textual level, my experience was very similar to Jasmine’s: the world she lives in and some of the darts that are constantly being thrown at her are things that I also experienced as a student. But I think what I did, what Jasmine is trying to do, is turn down the noise of this level of racism because it would have been impossible to stop if I had allowed myself to feel everything that was coming at me due. I built a shield of sorts, some of which I know still exists around me today. So I really just had to go through my history and dig up all these memories.”
Diallo began considering Hall for the role of Gail after seeing her dramatic turn in 2018’s Support the Girls.
“I’ve been hoping for so long that we could get her because I think ‘Master’ balances a lot of different tones beyond horror,” Diallo said. “And I’ve always known Regina to be a very flexible actress and a real multi-talent. She’s a natural comedian, but she’s also such a gifted dramatic actress. I’d never seen her in a horror movie, but I figured she could pull it off.”
She wrote Hall a letter explaining why she would be perfect for the role and sent it over with a copy of the script. Hall’s agents responded three days later to set up a meeting. “I thought the way she was able to approach issues like racing in the horror genre against the backdrop of the academic elite was really clever and timely and very well done,” said the actor. “Mariama is so smart. She had such a vision for her film.”
“At its core, it’s really the story of the characters,” Diallo said. “It’s about their experiences and their development throughout the film.”
The first draft of the script was told entirely from Gail’s point of view. “The events of the film are basically the same, except our access to Jasmine was much more limited,” Diallo said. “We really only saw Jasmine through Gail’s eyes.”
Since Gail was plausibly only able to come into contact with Jasmine a few times over the course of the film, Diallo’s Animal Kingdom producers Joshua Astrakhan and Brad Becker-Parton drew on her to include more of the character’s experiences and inner world. “With every draft, they asked for more Jasmine,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, but how many more encounters can I come up with between these two characters?'”
The idea of splitting up the narrative came up with something of an aha moment. “I ran into a wall that didn’t have to exist,” Diallo said. “I stopped and realized, ‘Oh, I can just follow Jasmine on my own,’ which is a bit unorthodox. But realizing that really opened up a lot of possibilities for me because I started thinking about the generational gap between Gail and Jasmine and seeing how she was trying to bridge that [wisdom] to someone else and the failure of some of those lessons.
Like Jasmine, Gail deals with the difficulties of her situation by avoiding them by adopting a non-confrontational stance. That kind of coping comes as a huge relief to outspoken professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), Gail’s friend who is currently seeking employment.
“We see that Gail, Jasmine and Liv all have different approaches to how they deal with being in this space and how they try to navigate their friends and colleagues,” Diallo said. “They all represent different facets of how a person might try to navigate such a hostile space: we have Jasmine in disowning for much of the film. She really doesn’t want to acknowledge what’s going on around her because it’s just too difficult, which in many ways approximates my own experience.
“And then Gail is overly optimistic, self-denying and just trying to get her way,” she added. “She has this Obama-era hope of coming in and shaking up the system and taking the school away from some aspects of her history and her past. But I think what Gail discovers as the film progresses is that the school had absolutely no intention of hiring her and that’s not the role she was meant to play.”
“Part of their identity is being successful and proving not just to themselves but to a larger society, ‘Hey, black women can be champions, we can do this,'” Hall said. “She put a lot into her education, into an academic life, into her performance. It probably took a long time to become a master: to be employed to write published works. It’s not an easy path.”
“She has this genuine belief in herself as a person who can carry anything [forward]’ Diallo said. “That’s admirable, but when you’re dealing with an institution as wealthy, powerful and well-established as Ancaster, you need the cooperation of the institution itself to really move forward. It’s a Sisyphean task and it’s not going to happen that way.
“And then there’s someone like Liv, who in some ways is more active than Gail and Jasmine and more willing to speak out against the institution,” she added. “But she also manages and uses her identity in a way that she both values and fears the institution. They’re all pursuing these different strategies and none of them really work because the forces they’re facing are just so great.”
“Liv capitalizes on her need to diversify because she has her own agenda,” Hall said. “Gail goes in there probably believing that she’s making a change and Jasmine is the result of that oppressive culture. She doesn’t quite get a hold. She’s really trying to fit in and be like everyone else, but the reality of what’s going on around her — the haunted thing, whether real or symbolic — seems to seep in [her emotional world].”
The resulting film, with its themes of both oppression and oppression, feels stiflingly claustrophobic. “I think putting it in that world of Ancaster College, it felt like there was no way out,” Hall said. “Gail didn’t feel like she had a way out, Liv didn’t feel like she had a way out, and Jasmine certainly didn’t feel like she had a way out. Even the people in the village felt somehow oppressed. Everything felt oppressed. It didn’t really feel like anyone’s voice was being heard or even spoken. They never really felt that Gail was really asserting her voice. There was a lot of physical and emotional isolation in the film.”
“I’ve heard from many, many Black people — Black women in particular — who have been in some of these similar spaces and institutions, and they’ve noticed how true it feels to their experience and how affirming and even surprising it is to see how.” it’s being presented on screen in a way it wasn’t before,” Diallo said. “People of all races have told me they saw similarities between the characters and their own experiences of isolation in certain spaces. That really fired me up.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-03-18/master-explained-amazon-regina-hall ‘Master’ explains: horror of racism in Amazon thriller