Master and the Horror Hidden in ‘Safe Spaces’

Mariama Diallo, Regina Hall, and the cast of Master recount their own experiences with the type of racism at the heart of Amazon’s new allegorical horror movie.

Regina Hall in Master on Amazon
Photo: Amazon

Inspiration can be incidental. For filmmaker Mariama Diallo, the writer and director of the new allegorical horror movie, Master, it could be described as faintly insidious. That’s at least one way to think about the larger social implications of her chance encounter with an old professor from her days at Yale University.

“I ran into my master out on the streets of New York a few years after I graduated,” Diallo explains now, referring to how faculty who live in the residential dormitories with Yale undergraduates are called ‘masters’ of their charges.

“And I greeted him the way I always had,” Diallo continues, “which starts with the title ‘Master.’ And in the streets of New York City that’s a weird thing to call an older white man, and it became immediately clear to me that I had unknowingly taken on this very, very strange dynamic, this kind of bizarre title and relationship to a person. And I just wanted to talk about it and write about it.”

The result is this weekend’s Amazon release: Master. The film mirrors some of Diallo’s own collegiate experiences as a young Black woman attending an Ivy League school and who is faced with unconscious (and conscious) biases. In the movie, the fictional school is called Ancastor, and the thorny implications are manifested via an urban legend about a witch. But there is a harsh echo of truth to the world inhabited by Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a valedictorian who is beginning her freshman year with big hopes when she reaches New England. Unfortunately, things quickly spiral when she discovers that story about a witch who supposedly lived in her dormitory—and the grim unspoken legacy of how so few Black women survived staying in the same room.

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Her own “master” is one Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), who hopes to be the guiding light that Jasmine needs to navigate the arcane rules and rituals of this world, just as Gail has done by spending a lifetime inside the system, trying to reform it. Yet even she is beginning to hear strange noises in her new role as master, and academic keeper of Jasmine’s fate. And each creak of a floorboard, like an off-the-cuff remark from a colleague, leaves her second-guessing.

When we catch up with Diallo, as well as Hall, Renee, and co-star Noa Fisher, it is ahead of Master’s SXSW premiere (the movie previously debuted at Sundance), and they’re in good spirits about opening up the knotty subtexts of the film, and even the pitfalls of the best intentions.

“There has to be the awareness that exists from the side that is causing or creating, or imposing [racism],” Hall considers. “And a lot of times it is not conscious. Sometimes it is very conscious, but it’s sometimes not. So it makes you wonder about being overreactive; it makes you question how you’re receiving; when you receive it, it’s not necessarily from the head, but it doesn’t feel right. But then you do learn to suppress those feelings and you move through those feelings because there’s a slight forgiveness of ‘oh they don’t know. They’re not trying necessarily to be racist,’ but racism exists.”

And in her own way, Hall sees herself in Gail, a woman who’s learned to make her way through this world and is hoping to help the next generation.

“Having gone to predominantly white institutions, I’ve certainly witnessed it and also felt it,” says Hall. “And you become accustomed to navigating within those spaces. So it’s interesting that Gail has become accustomed to it. And then she has Jasmine, which is a different vantage point into what she’s experiencing.”

In portraying Jasmine, Renee understands a lot of the character’s early excitement and optimism in the film. She describes the protagonist as a light who is soon being dimmed. And that appears to be a metaphor she can personally relate to.

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“I think that was one of the things that attracted me to the script in the first place,” Renee says. “I think it was the first time that I read experiences that I’ve had. And while it was painful and hard to read, it was the first time I felt seen in that way. I thought diving into those hard to reach experiences was going to be a really interesting process for me and my healing, and also for friends and family, and people that look like me.”

The elusively sinister quality of Master is that few if any of the main characters (at least living) are going out of their way to undermine or harm Jasmine and Gail. Gail’s almost all-white colleagues on the Ancastor faculty are delighted to have a Black master on the campus—their own Obama, they joke. Meanwhile Jasmine has friends from visibly moneyed backgrounds in her dorm who want to be her support system. But as Fisher, who plays fellow freshman Katie, tells us, that only goes so far.

“I think slowly through the support they’re giving her, or lack thereof, you see they’re kind of part of the problem,” Fisher says. “This unintentional racism that’s just as bad if not worse in those instances, because these are the people that are supposed to comfort Jasmine in this movie. And also they represent an institution that’s supposed to be a comforting, safe place. Higher education is supposed to teach you that these things are wrong, but it’s really adding to the problem, contributing.”

Fisher’s director is quick to note that some of the classmates, particularly Katie, attempt to understand things from Jasmine’s perspective. But none of them are really thinking about how Jasmine is experiencing their world.

“And when you’re a Black woman and you’re combating microaggressions that are coming at you a mile a minute,” says Diallo, “a lot of them are so subtle and so small that if you’re an outsider, somebody outside that experience, you might not notice it.”

The filmmaker sees that obliviousness a lot in the way we perceive ourselves and our history. Throughout Master, students and professors alike speak glowingly about Ancastor’s history going back to the 18th century. And yet, few pause to think that for those who had few or any rights in the 18th century–or those who might have been in bondage–that is not necessarily such a romantic notion.

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Says Diallo, “There’s a sort of obliviousness to how an individual’s experience and your background can inform the way you receive and experience, and process, the same information. It’s even entered the cultural conversation, this concept of ‘if you had a time machine what period would you travel to?’ I remember being in elementary school and a friend saying this to me, and I thought about it a good 20 seconds and said, ‘The future, maybe?!’”

The movie deals with extraordinary elements to craft its own legend–witches, and ghosts, and myths–but as Master indicates, the way we tell and process stories and create our own self-mythology shapes the world… and how people can survive in it.

Master premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 14 and debuts on Amazon on March 18.