Master: the horror film that schools US higher education

As debut film portrays academia as racist to the core, Mariama Diallo talks of love for her Yale experience but even tougher realities than she could show

March 25, 2022
Zoe Renee plays a fresher named Jasmine in ‘Master’, directed by Yale graduate Mariama Diallo as described in the article
Source: Emily V Aragones © Amazon Content Services LLC
Zoe Renee plays a fresher named Jasmine in ‘Master’, directed by Yale graduate Mariama Diallo

With a horror film that suggests US higher education is irreparably committed to racial and gender exploitation, Mariama Diallo is merely thanking the academy in the manner that it taught her.

“The film can be read as quite a polemic against academia,” Ms Diallo admitted with grand understatement in an interview about her debut feature film, Master, just released by Amazon Studios. “But it’s also a space that I am so close to, and that I also love so much.”

The signs of that love fully evade the 91-minute experience. Ms Diallo is a 2010 graduate of Yale University, and Master centres on two black women – a student and a professor – suffering grievous racial abuses at Ancaster College, a fictional centuries-old New England institution modelled largely on her Ivy League experience.

Ms Diallo wrote and directed Master. She has admitted that the name was one of the first ideas driving the project, a reflection of her revulsion at the term – forced on centuries of enslaved black Americans, and still used throughout her undergraduate years as the title for the heads of residential colleges – when she was reminded of it by a chance encounter with a professor years after her Yale graduation.

THE Campus resource: Questions you should ask yourself about your role in institutional racism

That lone improvement aside – Yale rid itself of the word in 2016 – Master depicts a world of higher education forever frozen in time. The student protagonist, a fresher named Jasmine (played by Zoe Renee), endures almost uniform cluelessness and cruelty from white classmates. The faculty protagonist, a newly minted residential master named Gail (Regina Hall), encounters a somewhat softer but still unremitting brand of ignorance from her colleagues.

Between them is another professor, Liv (Amber Gray), of biracial features and intentionally ambiguous origins, intents and alliances.

None fares well, suffering attacks of professional, personal and supernatural/white provenance.

Ancaster and its overwhelmingly white population show virtually no redeeming characteristics, and Ms Diallo made no apologies for that imbalance. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t believe it,” she told Times Higher Education.

After finishing at Yale, she spent a few years as an adjunct at Baruch College, mostly teaching English language skills. Her mother is a retired instructor at LaGuardia Community College in New York. Her father is an immigrant from Senegal with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of London who promotes education and human rights.

That depth of background informs the plot. A key triggering moment involves Liv asking her literature class to write a racial analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and the troubles that spin from Jasmine’s inability to comply. A British classmate makes clear her talent for riffing on any subject. Jasmine remains baffled because she does not yet have the necessary first-hand experience, Ms Diallo explained, and “her integrity doesn’t allow herself to write about something that she just doesn’t truly believe”.

For all the bashing of higher education, Ms Diallo warned that, “in some respects, the film even pulled some punches”. The individual people inside universities are not necessarily problematic, but the system can generate extreme hostility, she said. “The collected lifetime of stories, between my mom’s own experience as a professor and my own as a student, could make for a much more difficult watch than even the film provides,” she said.

Yet Yale was also “an incredible opportunity” that she would not suggest other minority students turn down. “One of the things I can thank Yale for is helping me hone and refine my critical analysis ability,” she said. “And one of the places that I turned it, ultimately, was on the school.”


Print headline: A scary view of race in the academy

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