“I always say music videos and commercials are a sprint, and television and film is very much a marathon,” says Melina Matsoukas, 38. “You have to pace yourself.” Well, starting with her big-screen debut Queen & Slim (out Wednesday), the lauded music-video and TV director is ready to go the distance.
Matsoukas always knew that she wanted to “make films and create kings,” but growing up in the heyday of MTV, the New York native felt it was important to start her career in the world of music videos. After graduating from both NYU and the AFI Conservatory, she quickly became a go-to director for music royalty including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga. “With music videos, I really got to learn how music could be a character and I started to concentrate on the narrative and bringing stories into that space,” says Matsoukas, who won a Grammy for directing Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
“[Matsoukas] is holding up a mirror for people who look like you and me to see ourselves, saying, ‘You are beautiful, and your stories matter,'” said Beyoncé as she presented her “sister” with an AFI award earlier this year. “She is fearless, no matter the challenges, and believes in breaking stereotypes in the industry, hiring marginalized creators, especially women. As a woman of color, conformity is not her thing. She stays authentic to her roots and femininity in an industry dominated by men. Her drive, vision, taste level, and storytelling is boldly unapologetic.”
Despite her power and bonafides in the music industry, Matsoukas was ready to grow and hoped to see her work “live in more than just one space.” She transitioned to commercials, and eventually to TV as an executive producer and director on HBO’s Insecure. “I met with Issa Rae, and we spoke the same language,” she says of the hit comedy’s creator and star. “I understood that story because I had lived it, in my way.”
After gaining experience on Insecure, Matsoukas got an opportunity to direct two episodes in the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, where she collaborated with Lena Waithe for the Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving.” Co-written by Ansari and Waithe, the episode was based on Waithe’s own coming out story. “There was a certain amount of trust that Lena allowed me to have with her story that I hadn’t experienced before,” shares Matsoukas. At the time, Waithe was also penning her debut feature, Queen & Slim. “I already knew we have a tremendous collaborative relationship,” says the filmmaker. “Once I read it, I knew it was my first film.”
While Waithe came up with the foundation, Matsoukas was excited to finally be able to show her own vision. “Coming from music videos and commercials and television, I was always working towards a brand, whether it was Rihanna, Issa, Lena — these are their stories,” she says. “But with this film, I got to develop something that was from me, from my soul, from my gut. I could truly, genuinely own it.”
Queen & Slim feels like a movie of the moment. Coming from the vision of two black women and starring two black actors (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith), the stylish romantic thriller follows a pair of strangers whose unmemorable Tinder date ends with them killing a cop in self-defense. The duo subsequently goes on the run and become the symbol of a movement. “I’m of the thought that you can entertain and create change,” shares Matsoukas. “It’s what Lena and I like to call ‘protest art.’ I hope that it brings value to black life and the black experience. If we create a dialogue about police brutality and black love and unity, then I think we’ve done our job.”
But Matsoukas’ work isn’t done — and she knows that the impact of her art is already making waves. “It’s time for change, and the world is recognizing it,” she declares. “Filmmakers like me, Issa, Lena, Ava DuVernay, and Barry Jenkins are breaking down doors; we’re creating access and forcing Hollywood to change the way that think they about film.”