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Interview: Meet The Mastermind Behind Prime Video’s ‘Master’, Mariama Diallo

Your favorite scary movies continue to be rooted in the horrors of reality and Black filmmakers are behind some of these latest film scares. The horror genre has entered into a new Black Renaissance, with creators like Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), Nia DaCosta (Candyman), Nikyatu Jusu (Nanny), and now Mariama Diallo.

With her feature film debut, Master, Diallo highlights the experiences of Black women within the ivory towers of academia, where racism and the supernatural intertwine to create a truly terrifying experience. 

Geeks of Color was able to speak with Diallo about her latest film, the inspiration behind it and what’s next for the talented creative.

Check out the interview with Mariama Diallo below:

Director of Master Mariama Diallo
(Courtesy of Mariama Diallo)

Going from Sundance to Prime Video, how does it feel to now have your film Master out for everyone to see?

Mariama Diallo: It feels just like this film has been in the making for so long. We were put on pause for almost a year because of COVID and we had already shot almost half the film before New York went into quarantine in March [2020]. So, it’s been a very long, gestating project and it just felt incredible, exhilarating, exciting, scary, weird, and a head trip for it to be out there.

What was the motivation behind this film?

Diallo: So, I really think that the most direct moment of inspiration, I should say rather, is that I went to a school where there were “masters”, and this was a title that existed at the time. I ran into one of my masters several years after I graduated. We were in New York. I saw him across the way, and I waved to him to catch his attention. I called out his name, which started with master. It was weird and it was immediately a little bit jarring and almost awkward. So, I found it fascinating, funny, weird, a little bit twisted, and perverse. There was just something in that word even and in that term that I wanted to dig into.

I’m sure plenty of folks who watch the film will find the word “master” as a loaded term for sure – especially Black folks.

Diallo: Yes. But one fun fact is that one of the things that the marketing people brought to us, which I hadn’t considered, they’re like, “We want to make it clear that this is not a slavery film because Black audiences are sick of them”. 

We wanted to let people know that it takes place in the modern-day and to understand the context of the film. So, yeah, I mean, master, it’s heavy and it carries a lot, honestly.

After going to a predominantly white institution (PWI), how much of your own experience were you able to put within Master?

Diallo: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think on the most detailed scale of the minutiae, the texture, the nuance, all of that is lifted from my own experience – basically, the way that Jasmine’s story unfolds. Obviously, it goes to some extremes that I did not experience, but the atmosphere, the relationship dynamics, and all of the particularities of what that’s like are really lifted from my own life and my own observation.

Then my mom actually worked in academia for her entire life as well. She’s retired now, but she was a professor. So, in terms of Gail’s story, there’s also a lot from her own experiences that I pulled from my mom as well.

As someone who went to a PWI for undergrad and grad and then worked in academia, when I saw your movie, I felt a lot.

Diallo: Yeah, I bet. I feel like, for people of color who went to PWIs, there’s a lot to process and talk about⁠—and kind of work through that doesn’t always go addressed.

Which horror films have inspired you?

Diallo: I could go on and on! Maybe to be a little bit more focused, I’ll start in terms of some of the visual references and inspirations that I was thinking of. Going into the film and talking with Charlotte Hornsby, who shot the film, we are both big lovers of classic horrors. So, films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby are factored largely for me as inspirations. There are some direct shots and visual inspirations from these films. I love Bergman. The Hour of the Wolf is another one that I was watching and thinking about around the time of prepping the film. 

And then in terms of contemporary horror films, I loved Let the Right One In. I thought that was an amazing film. I loved Get Out. Can’t miss that one. I loved Hereditary, and I loved The Witch. So that group is just a small sampling of some of the horror films that I love.

Speaking of Get Out, you have Jordan Peele, Nikyatu Jusu with Nanny, Nia DaCosta with Candyman, and now you with Master. How does it feel to be a part of this Black Horror Renaissance?

Diallo: It feels incredible. I think that horror has been pulled from a really limited viewpoint for much of its history.

I think that when you’re dealing with a genre that’s so personal and is so much about anxiety and fears, you need to fill it with so many different perspectives and viewpoints. And I think [Black perspectives] have been held from the genre for a really long time. [It’s] we always end up the first ones dead. If there were Black scriptwriters getting to make these films, [Black women] would make it to the final girl at least once or twice. 

But yeah, I think it’s wonderful. It’s a wave and I’m sure it will continue. And like you said, people like Nikyatu Jusu and Nia DaCosta, who are just incredible artists and really approaching the medium from a very genuine, authentic place, I think that we’re all going to be enriched by that. 

How much does this film differ from some of your previous work? 

Diallo: Master certainly differs in a way from some of my previous lists. The short films that I’ve done are all horror. Hair Wolf, which is my short film that really opened a lot of doors for me, is a horror-comedy. And tonally, it’s very different from Master. But I actually wrote Master before I wrote and shot Hair Wolf. Hair Wolf is a little bit more of a departure from my voice than the other way around. 

But I would say that for me, they’re all kind of part of the same conversation, which is this impressionistic, emotional, horror space that’s using the genre to communicate the characters’ internal theatres, their journey, and their anxieties. I think that’s something that I see in all of my films, even when they’re comedic like Hair Wolf

Obviously, Master also has comedy, but I would say that it’s weighted more heavily towards the dramatic experiences of the characters. Tonally, I would say Master is different from my other short, White Devil, which is also a horror-comedy. I feel like it’s a little bit specific to the comparison because short films in my experience kind of fare better when they’re funny.

So, that might also be what is kind of shifting my tone in those works. But then there’s Random Acts of Flyness and the work that I did there is kind of in a similar dream, liminal space, sleepwalking kind of state. So, it’s the same and different.

While Master is now viewable in homes all over the world, what’s next for you?

Diallo: One of the things that’s so wonderful about completing Master is that it opens my world up again to doing something new and different. I mean, I’ve been working on Master for so many years. Basically, I started my first draft in 2016. So, it’s been a long time and I’m really excited to get back into writing. 

I have a horror concept that I’m really excited by and it’s just fun to be at the very beginning again in the idea stage and “wondering how am I going to make this work? How will it come together?”. It’s really cool. I don’t necessarily want to be exclusively a horror director, But I do love horror. I love the genre. I love the challenge and it really is like, “How am I going to do this? How am I going to think of something scary? How am I going to get them? How am I really going to tell this story in a compelling way that keeps people engaged?” So, that’s a very long way of saying I’m working on a horror script now and at the very beginning [of it].

Well, if it’s anything like your previous work, I know it’s going to be amazing. Mariama, thank you so much for being able to speak with me for Geeks of Color.

Diallo: Thank you so much, Joshua. I can talk to you for hours and miss my flight, but it was truly so much fun and really a real pleasure and treat to join you on it.

Master is available now available on Prime Video

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