For a decade and a half, Melina Matsoukas has helmed moody, swoony, sexy music videos that subvert expectations by turning an idol’s image inside-out — whether it’s re-imagining Snoop Dogg as a keytar-wielding lounge act (“Sensual Seduction”) or transforming Katy Perry into a grieving World War II widow (“Thinking of You”). Her strongest work, however, usually stars black women like herself — Rihanna, Solange, Beyoncé — who see themselves as fellow political-rebel artists. Take her instantly iconic video for “Formation,” which recast the “All the Single Ladies” singer as a furious Aphrodite draped over a sinking New Orleans police car. The video — Matsoukas’ 12th collaboration with her — capped Beyoncé’s ascent from pop star to American goddess, and won them both the Grammy for Best Music Video. It also earned them an accusation from the National Sheriffs’ Association of “inciting bad behavior.”
“I love to challenge the authority and the norms,” Matsoukas says, a notion that her debut feature, Queen & Slim, doubles down on. A romantic thriller that pivots on police violence, the movie opens with a first date between two strangers (played by newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith and Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya). Then an aggressive traffic stop by a police officer turns fatal, and the couple is forced to go on the lam. As they zig zag across America in borrowed, and sometimes stolen cars, the media calls them murderers. But to most of the people they meet, they’re scapegoats — maybe even heroes. It’s a lush, vibrant vision that plays off an aesthetic she’s honed in her shorter work; she even alludes to one of “Formation’s” most powerful images, a young boy facing down a phalanx of cops. Clearly, Matsoukas is unbowed. “Their narrative hasn’t changed, so mine won’t either,” the director says. “When that stops happening, then I’ll stop making work like this.”
Matsoukas often speaks in equations, and it’s hard for her to talk about her work without calculating how it impacts the world. She reckons that Queen & Slim, which gave her final cut and empowered her to hire other up-and-coming people of color — from the on-set photographers to star Turner-Smith — can launch a lot of other film careers. The exponential explosion of success doesn’t just factor back to her, but to the people who supported her: Queen & Slim‘s screenwriter Lena Waithe, Insecure creator Issa Rae, Beyoncé. “I am who I am because of black women,” says Matsoukas. “We’re beginning to redefine our community — and hopefully our version of Hollywood.”
Her father, a half-Greek, half-Jewish woodworker, and mother, an Afro-Cuban, Jamaican professor, met through a socialist student group in New York City, and raised their daughter in the Bronx before moving to New Jersey. Journalists often refer to her dad as a carpenter, yet she prefers the world “builder,” as in someone who can make anything if they just have the materials. With an extended family that included activists, Cuban maids, Upper West Side Jews, and a preacher grandfather who rode around Harlem on a white horse, her childhood home was “a wondrous collision of culture,” says Matsoukas. “My parents raised me to create change. They are Communist believers, so they don’t believe in organized religion, but we believe very much in culture and in food — Greek food, Cuban food, soul food, Jamaican food, all on one plate.”
She entered NYU as a math major, but graduated with a thesis project on music videos — a change of lanes more parallel than perpendicular. “”An understanding of math or technology is extremely important in film,” Matsoukas insists. “There’s a chemical reaction happening on celluloid, both visually and literally.”
And as her Queen & Slim star Turner-Smith describes: “She’s really forensic.” On set, Matsoukas is a stickler for costumes, colors, details; just picking out the tiger-print dress and snakeskin boots Turner-Smith sports in the second half of the film was a calibration of ideas from blaxploitation films to superhero spandex to Alberto Korda’s legendary snapshot of Che Guevara. “She’s a true artist,” says Turner-Smith. “Every frame is a still life.” (See, for example, a shot of her actors sitting in a diner booth, which plays like a beautifully Afrocentric take on a Hopper painting, or a scene in which characters stand silhouetted against a burning car at dawn.)
“My work in videos was completely disrespected. It was discredited. It was diminished,” says Matsoukas. “There’s just a stigma on video directors.” Which is shortsighted, as music videos trained her to work fast, cheaply, and creatively. Take Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” which captures the entire arc of a disastrous relationship in four and a half minutes. Matsoukas primed the over-scheduled pop star and her faux British boxer to fake palpable, non-verbal chemistry — even though they didn’t get to meet until the director called action. Get lost in it, she told them. If they felt like it, they could kiss. They did on the first take.
“We Found Love” won Matsoukas her first Best Music Video Grammy in 2013, an honor fellow filmmakers Spike Jonze, Tarsem, and Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris also won early in their careers. “Formation” scored Matsoukas a second, tying her with David Fincher and Josephn Kahn. (Only Mark Romanek, at three, has more.) She knew she was ready for a feature. However, her idol — the hip-hop video auteur Hype Williams — has yet to be embraced by the film industry.
“The black body is more celebrated in death than in life. How do we change that? By honoring them while they still have their breath, which we try to do with this film.”—Melina Matsoukas
“He is my Scorsese,” says Matsoukas. Yet, Williams only got to make one film, the 1998 hyper-stylized noir Belly, before Hollywood rejected his vision of a fantastical, blacklight-tinged thriller starring an all-black cast. Belly has an 88 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but just 13 percent approval from critics, which Matsoukas calls, “sickening.” Recently, Williams gave her the Wall Street Journal‘s Innovator award. Onstage, Matsoukas presented her trophy back to him. “I don’t feel that it was right that I would accept something like that in his presence.”
Queen & Slim is fueled by a similar question: Can we honor black lives while they’re alive? While fleeing from Cleveland to Cuba (it’s a lovely coincidence that the script’s vision of safety is her own mother’s homeland), the couple become beatified as icons. Queen’s Uncle Earl calls them “the Black Bonnie and Clyde,” but Matsoukas wants audiences to think of Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice — real people who were posterized and flattened into something both more and less valuable than a human being.
“The black body is more celebrated in death than in life,” Matsoukas says. “How do we change that? How do we know it’s not just a hashtag or a sweatshirt or an image? One way of doing that is by honoring them while they still have their breath, which we try to do with this film.”
“If you look at my work as a throughline, I obviously love to celebrate black culture and black people,” she muses. “Someone’s always rebelling against the status quo.” The filmmaker means her stars, be they Beyonce or the Best Actor-nominated Kaluuya. But she’s the rebel Hollywood needs.