In 2018, Mariama Diallo shared her short film Hair Wolf with audiences at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, and this year, she returned to the fest with her debut feature film, Master, Starring Regina Hall and Zoe Renee, Master’s story is centered around the horrifying experiences of two different Black women navigating their way through an academic space steeped in the traditions of racism and founded in white supremacy, and the harm that these ideals can have when they’re not properly addressed and destroyed.

Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Diallo about the project, and during our conversation, she discussed how her own personal experiences, as well as her mother’s, helped shape the story of Master. Diallo also talked about taking on harmful tropes that have been a part of Hollywood’s legacy of storytelling over the years in her first feature, her experiences collaborating with both Hall and Renee, and how it felt to return to Sundance this year, even if it was just in the virtual space.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the film during this year’s Sundance, Master will debut on Amazon Prime on March 18th, so be sure to keep an eye out for it on their streaming platform.

So great to speak with you, Mariama, and congratulations on the film. I thought this story was incredibly powerful and the way you layered in all these elements was fantastic. And that's where I would love to start our discussion, because you created this really haunting story about three different black women's experiences in academia. We don't see those kinds of stories being told very often, particularly not at institutions like this. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the inspiration behind the script and your approach to the real-life horror and the supernatural horror in Master as well.

Mariama Diallo: I think that there was a lot that I needed to unpack and investigate in the academic space on a personal level. And then, around the time that I wrote this, my mom, who was a professor at LaGuardia College in New York, was going through her own kind of traumatic academic experience at the college that she worked at. That was a thing. I had gone to a school, Yale, with masters when I was a student. Then I had run into my former "Master" after I had graduated in New York, and we had a run-in that was, at turns hilarious and also very illuminating, but as they do in the film, that's just what you call this person for me in my head. That was his name.

I saw him, and I exclaimed, joyously, his name isn't Master Jones, but let's say it was like Master Jones. I was so thrilled to see him; I was excited, and it was like the blood drained from his face. He's probably thinking, "Oh my God, there are all these passers-by going by. I don't want anybody to watch; this whole dynamic is weird." And that's when it really hit home for me, how bizarre the entire enterprise had been, which it's funny to say now because it's obvious. The truly perverse part of it is how easily accepted that concept and title were into my life. These schools tell you, "Well, don't worry, this is a borrowed term from the British schools. This was adopted by the college in the 1930s in order to model itself on these prestigious, British institutions. It's got nothing to do with slavery. Don't worry. That's not what it is. Stop asking."

As an 18-year-old I went with it; I accepted it. Then all of a sudden, for years of my life, I had somebody in my head who I called Master. After running into my alleged Master, I walked away from that interaction thinking, “I have to write about this.” I loved the word. I just felt like there was so much there. I knew that the title had to be Master. At this point, The Master had already come out and I thought to myself, "Wow, they really fumbled on that one, because I think the clear, better title is "Master." The "the" takes out so many other meanings of the word and shades a meaning. You lose the verb; you lose a lot when you call your film The Master.

I had that kernel, and that was the first spark. Then I thought, "Oh, it's got to be a black woman who's had this title thrust upon her. How does she react?" That's when Gail came to me, and then I was able to bring in so many different parts of my life, my memories of being an undergraduate, my mom's experience with her colleagues at her college, and everything kind of went from there.

What I also think is really interesting is, in this story, you also explore this sort of horrible concept that was prevalent through cinema and storytelling for years and years and years of “the Mammy.” I’m white, so when I was growing up, I didn't realize what that stereotype truly meant. But a few years ago, we had a documentary called Horror Noire that talked a lot about that, and I've seen more stories these days confronting that harmful stereotype as well, which you also do here. Do you feel like we're finally getting to a place where people are okay with beginning to reconcile the effect of these tropes that were super harmful, even if they didn't feel like it at the time?  Was there something specifically where you felt, as a filmmaker, that the timing was right to continue to explore these racist tropes and elements from our past and bring them into the discussion now in the present?

Mariama Diallo: You know, I think that it's interesting because I don't think everybody is ready for a reckoning. I don't think that everybody is interested in it. I think that more people are now than ever. And that's a start, but like you were saying, we're thinking specifically about this figure of the Mammy and in the film, we see Gail discover that Mammy cookie jar in the kitchen that has clearly been left behind by one of the previous Masters who lived there before. And I think that there's a way in which there are some racist signposts and tropes that are also clearly, incredibly emotional for people, like non-Black people, that it can be really hard for them to let go.

But it's interesting because Gail is also being thrust into a Mammy position on the campus as like this comforting, desexualized, black, feminine presence that holds you to their bosom—that's basically the role that she's being given in the film. And there's a way, I guess, that it might feel for somebody who is on the receiving end of all that where it might feel nurturing. But you know, the dangerous thing that happened in this country is that I think a lot of sentimental emotional, irrational attachments were made to racist things and that is very hard to take away from people.

I wanted to talk about sort of the two sides of the coin here in terms of the characters of Gail and Jasmine, played by Regina Hall and Zoe Renee in this film. There’s Regina's character, Gail, who has to be strong, be stoic, be professional, and she has to continue to be all these things while navigating her way through this whole new world. And then the same for Zoe, but she's dealing with things on a much more emotional level. I just thought that both of their performances really anchored this story and gave me a lot to invest in emotionally throughout the film.

Mariama Diallo: I mean, it was incredible to work with both of them. And like you said, they're both phenomenal and it was really fun. It's interesting because they're two very talented actresses, but at two very different times in their creative lives. Like Regina, what is so amazing about Regina is she really just lives and breathes film. This has been her life and her world for so long and what she's able to tap into and where she's able to go was truly astounding to me. And it wasn't an easy time, obviously. Half of the film we completed during COVID, almost a year after we had started. And then, like anybody else filming at the time, with the really stringent guidelines with the masks and the shields and the distancing. I think that as an actor, that's not an ideal situation because actors are empathy machines. They need to be able to have a human connection. They have to be able to have that human engagement. And Regina was just able to navigate our changing circumstances so beautifully and bring every shade to Gail, so that Gail can be funny and have all these other aspects to her personality, too.

I did want to say that, for me, humor is an important element of my life and in a horror film, I like a film to have a sense of humor about itself and not take itself too seriously, and Regina was an amazing partner for that. But then the emotional depth that she's also able to reach and to mine, it was really wonderful to see that happening on set. I would just be watching her and holding my breath during a performance because it was incredible to see unfold.

And then Zoe, who is just beginning her career and just has this amazing, natural talent that's bursting out of her core, it was also really, really lovely to be able to work with an actor who is just coming into film and figuring out what she likes and how she wants to perform. We knew that Zoe was Jasmine from the moment we met her. Her natural energy and charisma really felt like the Jasmine who we meet at the top of the film and where Zoe, who's so young, was able to go. Particularly, in the second half of the film and what she was able to access, I have such gratitude to her for going to those places for that character, because I think that you really feel it as a viewer.

I know we're already getting close in time, but I did want to ask one last question. I know it's not the most ideal circumstances, but I'm curious, how great does it feel to return to Sundance and be able to share Master with everybody? And even if it's not the most ideal situation, the plus side is the fact that there are so many people from everywhere who are getting to experience this film, which has to feel pretty cool.

Mariama Diallo: It does. It feels amazing. I was talking to my mom the other day after we premiered, and I was telling her I'm a filmmaker now. Obviously, I had been a filmmaker before. I had worked on Random Acts of Flyness, and I had directed shorts. But it really does feel as if it's a really big shift for my career. I've been working on this film and wanting for this film for so long, so to be able to have it out there and let the people decide what they get from it and what they like about it, it's huge. I was probably like a lot of people, where I was really bummed out when I first found that Sundance wasn't going to be in person. But I had this conversation with myself where I just said, “The things that matter are still going to happen. You're still going to release your film. The film is going to be there. The parties and the experience of seeing it with an audience are bonuses. Those are like the really nice things that you get, that's your cherry on top.” But at the core of everything, to be in this community of artists and to be one of the voices in this conversation is everything that I wanted and everything that I was waiting for.

[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.]


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  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.