Horror films employ scare tactics for shrills and thrills. But unlike most, Prime Video’s “Master” weaves a thought-provoking message into a new tale about a college campus with a scary, racist history. The film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and SXSW Film Festivals, follows three Black women (Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, and Amber Gray) trying to find their place at an old-fashioned, predominantly white university, Ancaster College.
Hall stars as Professor Gail Bishop, the first Black woman at Ancaster promoted to “Master” of a residence hall. Renee plays optimistic freshman Jasmine Moore, who’s assigned to live in a haunted dorm room, and Gray stars as Liv Beckman, a professor in the middle of a grueling tenure review. All three characters fight their own battles at the college, but they’re linked by the overarching racism and elitism that haunt the campus.
“I definitely wanted to throw some curveballs, take some risks, try something, and not necessarily do something easy.”
Director Mariama Diallo reveals to POPSUGAR that she wanted her feature debut to spark a lively dialogue about something rarely discussed. “I definitely wanted to throw some curveballs, take some risks, try something, and not necessarily do something easy,” she says. “Maybe do something that might be divisive.” “Master”‘s inception took place in 2016, a year before Jordan Peele‘s “Get Out” made its explosive debut and resurrected the Black-horror genre. While Diallo credits folks like Peele and Nia DaCosta (“Candyman”) for making films that paved the way for “Master,” she makes it clear that her film reflects her specific experiences. “I think that particularly Jordan Peele and the way that he blew open the genre is incredibly inspirational and made so many things possible for me that I think would’ve been very different had he not made ‘Get Out,'” Diallo says. “But then on the story level, [‘Master’] is so incredibly personal to me and was not really at all inspired by another work like that, in terms of the story.”
“Master” doesn’t subscribe to the traditional horror tropes — there’s no distinct villain out to get everyone. Gail deals with colleagues who see her as a token Black unicorn, and Jasmine investigates the suicide of the first Black woman to attend Ancaster — which took place in her dorm decades prior. Meanwhile, Liv fights to prove that she deserves tenure when her identity and credentials are questioned. Race is the common denominator, and each woman’s experience allows “Master” to explore all the ways in which history, class, and racism affect US academic institutions.
“. . . it blew my mind that this was something that had happened and that I hadn’t considered it more deeply — so I wanted to investigate that word.”
Diallo, a Yale alum, says that Ancaster directly reflects her undergraduate experience — specifically, students being assigned a “master” (a faculty member who serves as a leader of a university’s residential-college housing system). Her alma mater has since changed the term. “At Yale, while I was a student there, they give you a master,” Diallo says. “Before you step foot on campus, you are told who your master is, and that is kind of your master in perpetuity. It was really normalized there, and it’s something that I accepted with alarming ease, in retrospect. It really hit me a few years after I graduated, and it blew my mind that this was something that had happened and that I hadn’t considered it more deeply — so I wanted to investigate that word. And then I wanted to see what happens when a Black woman is thrust into that kind of position.”
“I just felt like those themes, the idea of being other, it really resonated with me.”
Ancaster is tethered to its history and long-standing traditions, and its troubled past bleeds into its present. Hall’s character takes a deep dive into the college’s history after Jasmine’s arrival on campus makes her aware of the school’s unresolved phantoms. Hall is mostly known for her comedic roles, but the film’s script immediately drew her in. “When I read it, I didn’t stop thinking about it,” she tells POPSUGAR. “I just thought [Gail] had a lot of issues that I’ve never seen, with an academic institution as the backdrop. And then, in a horror film, I loved that I felt like it spoke to a lot of people’s experiences that I also had in school . . . I just felt like those themes, the idea of being other, it really resonated with me.” Renee echoes Hall’s thoughts, emphasizing that we’ve never seen this story told before. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen the relationship between a predominantly white institution and a young Black girl, and even a [Black] woman coming in to be master of a school,” she says. “I thought that was really interesting, and it deserved to be explored.”
“Master” flips horror films on their head. The real antagonist is open to interpretation, but Hall and Renee agree that race and history are part of it. “When we talk about race or any hard subject, I think that it’s hard to be so clear that this is exactly what happened, and this is why it’s bad,” Renee says. Hall says that “Master”‘s symbolism is the “darkest and realest ghost,” but Diallo’s analysis points to Ancaster itself as the true puppet master. “I think you see the way that the characters are deployed by the institution,” she says. “This idea of this background element of the school just sitting back and lying in the weeds — but it’s pulling all the strings.”
“I think that in a certain respect, I didn’t really have a message — I really just felt a duty to the characters.”
Perhaps the most powerful element of “Master” is its open-ended conclusion. The film unpacks so much while leaving even more up in the air. Diallo mainly hopes that it’ll give viewers some food for thought. “I’m open to people taking what they will from [‘Master’],” she says. “I think that in a certain respect, I didn’t really have a message — I really just felt a duty to the characters. My interest was in exploring their experiences, in trying to be truthful about what happens in spaces like this and being a Black woman in America. I think that within that, there are all sorts of themes, ideas, and messages. But just like the film ends on an open note, I think that I open it up to audiences to go in and decide what they think is the message, and what it means to them.”
“Master” is available to stream on Prime Video now.