Teetering between tense drama and full-blown horror, the genius of Mariama Diallo’s “Master” is how it gaslights the audience as much its characters. A stark social satire wrapped in chilling horror, the film keeps everyone guessing who is seeing things and who is just blind to reality.
Set at an elite academic institution in Massachusetts, “Master” — now streaming on Prime Video after a very well-received premiere at Sundance in January — follows three Black women in different positions of power. From the jump, the specter of institutional racism pervades every scene, whether in not-so-subtle micro-aggressions or dusty racist memorabilia. Much like it must feel for Black people to exist in a racist society, these markers of white supremacy can pop up at any time and any place.
The film centers on a professor named Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), who has recently been promoted to the college’s top honor of “House Master.” (Based on Diallo’s experience at Yale, which stopped using it in 2016, the term is a relic and a present-day reminder of the institution’s racist past.) Though Gail begins the film proud of her accomplishment, Diallo infuses every scene with an omnipresent unease.
While cleaning up after her own dinner party, Gail is thrust into a subservient role by her mere surroundings and the all-white faculty she is hosting. A slow-motion shot of Gail unfurling a white table cloth plays could easily exist in a slavery film.
Even as the terrors become more extreme, the characters keep questioning their experiences. Unlike its social horror predecessor “Get Out,” “Master” never takes a full turn into classic horror — there’s no wild basement scene or expository reveal of the supernatural occurrences. Though there are more than a few jump scares and creepy crawlies, ultimately the metaphor is left mostly in tact.
“I wanted it to feel grounded and I didn’t want it to feel gratuitous,” said Diallo in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I had to ask myself what scares me and go back through my memory, [to ask] what are the things that keep me up at night? Or if I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m sitting with my legs over the edge of the bed, what freaks me out? Trying to access the most honest, truthful representations of fear so that it wouldn’t feel cheap. I wanted to infuse the film with things from my memories so that I was giving the audience, ideally, something that cost me something as well, that was coming from a truthful place.”
It’s a fine balancing act, and it conveys a deft sensitivity to the power of images.
“Film is so delicate, and it’s powerful,” Diallo said. “When you allow somebody to enter your eyes and brain, you really hope there’s care there and thought and intention, because images stay with us. You know, we dream them later and they last. So when I see the kind of horror film that’s almost hyper-pornographic in its imagery, not literally so, but with the violence and with the way that humanity is treated, it can be hard.”
Hall — who stars alongside Zoe Renee and Amber Gray — was incredibly impressed with how clearly Diallo delivered on her vision.
“Mariama knew what she wanted, and it’s weird because she was very specific, but also equally collaborative,” Hall said. “So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I own it. It has to be this.’ But she knew what it had to feel like. And so she never said what to do, but I always knew what she was after. She is very subtle. She gave us a lot of films to watch before we did this, and she likes Michael Haneke a lot.”
In addition to Haneke, Diallo cites a range of influences, from “The Shining” to “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Killer of Sheep.” The parallels to “The Shining” are apt, especially as the collegiate setting and its neo-Gothic buildings take on its own persona in the film. But tonally, there’s one comparison that feels especially ripe.
“Toni Morrison, hands-down, is somebody who I think, in a way that I aspire to, could create worlds in which the supernatural and the real, there’s no necessary distinction between them,” she said. “There’s a fluidity between spaces, and where characters and black women are at the core of those stories.”
Without question, “Master” passes the famous Bechdel test with flying colors. There are only a few men with speaking roles at all, and they are always in service of the women characters. Behind the scenes, too, “Master” was filled with women, including cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby and editors Maya Maffioli and Jennifer Lee.
“I think we innately can change in energy,” Hall said of working with so many women below the line. “I think we just have different energies. It’s neither good, it’s neither better nor worse. It’s just different. And I think the more different energies you can have in a production and seeing the lens through those eyes of a non monolithic group of people, I always think that’s better.”
“Master” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.