Although Melina Matsoukas has gained critical acclaim for her first feature film, Queen & Slim, Matsoukas has been a music industry staple for more than 15 years. She’s directed videos for a number of legendary musicians, including Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
However, Matsoukas is perhaps best known for her collaborations with Beyoncé. In 2017, Matsoukas won her second Grammy for directing the video for Beyoncé‘s Formation. She won her first Grammy in 2013 for directing Rihanna’s music video We Found Love.
The Bronx, N.Y., native grew up in a family of activists. She received her bachelor’s of fine arts degree in film and television from New York University and a master’s from the AFI Conservatory in cinematography.
“The way I was brought up is that you could choose your path, but that you had to make some sort of contribution to the world in a significant way,” said Matsoukas. “And for me, it [was] through the arts.”
Matsoukas’ first feature film, Queen & Slim, starring Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and model-turned-actress Jodie Turner-Smith, tells the story of two Black, near-strangers who kill a police officer in self-defense and later go on the run.
“I really believe in Black love and Black unity as a revolutionary act,” said Matsoukas.
Creating Queen & Slim was a two-year process from inception to release. According to the director, she and Lena Waithe worked on the script together for months. Matsoukas said she was drawn to the story because it had everything she wanted.
“It was political. It had something to say, it was a reflection of the times that we are living in. It was really modern, and at the same time, it was this beautiful love story,” Matsoukas said.
Matsoukas and Waithe sold the film together, after which Matsoukas moved to New Orleans for prep. The film was largely shot in New Orleans as well as Cleveland (and Mississippi, which played the role of Florida in the film).
Authenticity was key in telling the story of Queen and Slim.
“I really wanted it to reflect the world in which we live, and I knew it had to ring true to audience members in order to be believable, to be grounded and rooted,” Matsoukas said. “I really wanted to reflect society and its darkness, and also see the beauty in that.”
Matsoukas also said she wanted to reflect the Black journey through America, to view certain points of iconography and landscape not seen through the Black lens in film. Working on the road and shooting in real locations facilitated that goal. Beginning the film in Ohio, a state that has the death penalty, was critical to the story. It also was a chance to more deeply reflect on the history of Black people in America.
“I’ve always thought of it as a reverse slave escape narrative,” Matsoukas said of the film. “Cleveland was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before slaves would get to Canada. It’s really important that we start there.”
Most recently, Matsoukas entered the world of television as an executive producer on Issa Rae’s HBO comedy Insecure. She is also working on a film about African musician Fela Kuti.
Matsoukas said she hopes to direct more feature films and will continue to seek out stories that move her as a creator.
“I like things that have something to say, that are powerful, that will create a dialogue, but at the same time can be entertaining,” said Matsoukas. “I’m not one that thinks you can’t have both.”
— Britt Julious