Melina Matsoukas pulls up to the Underground Museum, an art gallery in Los Angeles, in a towering yellow Range Rover. All the other cars parked on the block are white, black or occasionally silver. Her car gleams with such ferocity that I worry it might blind oncoming traffic. “I’ve wanted this car for ever,” she says as she hops out. “There’s a whole story behind it, I have to tell you.”
Matsoukas has always wanted to tell stories. As a director she has designed and shot music videos for some of the world’s biggest artists, such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. These have received hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and played a crucial part in shaping their public images. She has directed award-winning episodes of TV shows people swoon over: “Insecure”, a series created by Issa Rae about black twenty-somethings coming of age in Los Angeles; and “Master of None”, a comedy by Aziz Ansari about thirty-somethings doing the same in New York. Now, after years crafting the stories of other people, she finally gets to tell one of her own with the release of “Queen & Slim”, her first feature film.
Her string of credits is long, but she is best known for “Formation”, her 2016 video of a single by Beyoncé. The hit marked an inflection point in Beyoncé’s career. Though she was already a superstar, in “Formation” she confidently asserted her pre-eminence in pop culture and embraced her own southern heritage without apology.
This was a lot to get into a four-minute song. To realise this vision, she turned to Matsoukas who had, for nearly a decade, been stealthily creating a new visual language of the black experience. By portraying aspects of black life on screen that had rarely been shown before, she had brought the unbuttoned domestic lives of black Americans to white audiences and created a body of visual cues that people of colour recognised from their lives.
Matsoukas posed Beyoncé, like a sea goddess on a shipwreck, in a red Gucci dress atop a police squad car as it sinks into the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Elsewhere Matsoukas celebrated Beyoncé’s roots: she shot her leaning out of a vintage car, ass-length micro-braids swinging in the wind, thumbing her nose at the glossier style that white male studio executives had demanded of her. The video includes glimpses of women in black hair salons (Beyoncé’s mother was a hairdresser) and dancers busting moves to New Orleans bounce, a hip-hop genre that originated in the city’s housing projects.
As the video progresses, Beyoncé’s portraits adorn the walls of antebellum mansions. She dances in the halls and holds court as a primly dressed southern matron. It’s a montage of black realities and black fantasies that draw on a collective memory to evoke, in the words of one critic, the “entirety of black experience in America in 2016”. It didn’t matter who else understood the references, as long as Beyoncé’s people did.
The video struck a chord and won awards, including a Grammy for best music video. It is the prime example of the kind of richly realised work that Matsoukas creates. Other videos performed similar magic. Daniel Kaluuya, the star of “Queen & Slim”, said that when he first saw Matasoukas’s video for Solange’s song “Losing You”, in 2012, it was “the first time I saw Africa in the way that I see it when I go over to visit: how stylish people are, how sweaty they are”.
Matsoukas styles herself with the same care she applies to her films. Though she was up late partying the night before we meet, her Diana Ross blow-out is only slightly rumpled and she’s nailed the morning-after casual look: a modern colour palette (oat and navy) and trousers like paper bags that are avant-garde enough to make the average woman feel like she’s never truly understood how to wear them. The Underground Museum exclusively exhibits artists of colour, a number of whom Matsoukas has begun to collect under the tutelage of Tina Lawson, Beyoncé’s mother. We struggle to get the tour started because Matsoukas knows practically everyone here, from the museum host to a local boutique owner and the two young volunteers carting in vegetables. In her own life, much as in her professional work, Matsoukas gains sustenance from her community. And it is this community that she wants to represent back to the world.
And the car? She found it in New Orleans, when she was scouting locations for “Queen & Slim”. But she first spotted it as a 12-year-old in suburban New Jersey while reading Vibe magazine. It’s a limited edition 2002 Range Rover Borrego, of which only 125 were originally made. It was made famous by Nas, a New York rapper who drove it in “Belly”, a crime drama from 1998 made by one of her inspirations: Hype Williams, another music-video director who then turned to films. The Range Rover was an icon of hip-hop culture. Owning it would show that she was a successful black woman and still fly. This wasn’t just a car. It was part of her story.
Matsoukas grew up in Co-op City, a housing complex in the Bronx, until she was eight, when her family moved to New Jersey. Her father was a half-Greek, half-Jewish carpenter; her mother, a teacher, has Cuban and Jamaican ancestry. They met through the Progressive Labor Party, a group that broke from the American Communist Party for being too accommodating. “I was raised to be a part of the cause,” explains Matsoukas. Her parents always pushed her to become an activist. “How are you going to create change? How are you going to say something in life and not waste the privilege and opportunity you’ve been given?”
Her father, an amateur snapper, instilled in her a love of photography. But she didn’t have a clear idea of where she was heading. She studied economics at university until she hit a wall with the maths then switched to studying film. Her first short was about a group of women on a night out in New York’s Meatpacking District, where they were handled like meat. “I hope that’s burned somewhere,” she says with a roll of her eyes. She got hooked on the medium but she was an MTV baby at heart. As a teenager, she had spent her free time sneaking off to nightclubs in the city. She realised that making pop videos would allow her to combine aspects of both photography and film, composing striking images and spinning a narrative. To Matsoukas, music videos felt like short stories, an art form in their own right.
Initially she didn’t want to go to graduate school. It was her mother who told her that, as a black woman, she would need to be twice as skilled and with twice as many credentials to make it. “I was like ‘Fine mom, I’ll apply’,” if only to appease her. When she got onto a highly selective cinematography course at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, she thought “Shit I guess I gotta go.” The craft she learnt there has shaped her subsequent work. Cinematography, she says, “teaches you how to tell a story visually without having to be dependent on a script or on words”. This has allowed her to sustain visual narratives across her music videos that ran in parallel to the songs. “Queen & Slim” also has stretches that rely on barely any dialogue.
From the outside, Matsoukas’s rise to success seems almost frictionless. She got an agent as soon as she finished her postgraduate studies. Her first proper music video was for “Money Maker”, a bombastic strip-club anthem by rapper Ludacris and R&B singer Pharrell Williams in 2006, which topped every chart. She felt in over her head. She was so nervous that her initial moodboard resembled something out of “A Beautiful Mind”. “It was a mess,” she says. But the resulting video brought her to the attention of Jay-Z. When he met Matsoukas at a party in 2006, he turned to Beyoncé and declared, “She’s the next one.” Matsoukas responded to Beyoncé by saying, “I’m coming for you!” She laughs at her younger self’s boldness. “I know, I’m corny.”
A month later Beyoncé came for her. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh music videos Matsoukas ever made were for one of the biggest stars on the planet. Small wonder, then, that Whitney Houston, Solange, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and J.Lo all came for her too. The work was dynamic, beautiful and fun. And she had a knack for making her subjects feel at ease: in 2007, she somehow convinced Snoop Dogg to dance in an unbuttoned shirt in “Sensual Seduction”.
Though she was in high demand, Matsoukas began to chafe at the medium’s limitations. She wanted her work to be part of the central conversations about American life, to help people see the world differently. Yet too often she found herself called upon to deliver flash and swagger. “Music videos as a medium were really looked down upon and it was hard to get an opportunity,” she said. Eventually her opportunity came: Issa Rae asked her to sign on as executive producer and director of her television series “Insecure”. Rae was a little concerned that Matsoukas’s style might be too glamorous for the more mundane settings of her show, but Matsoukas took as much care to depict the substance of twenty-something black life as she had with Beyoncé’s glamour and confidence. She tooled around LA with Rae, seeing her hangouts, exploring the atmosphere of different neighbourhoods. She ultimately created a setting for the show that struck a balance between cosmopolitan aspirations and mundane realities. We all wanted to move in.
Her next proposition was different again. Lena Waithe, now an Emmy award-winning screenwriter and actress, approached Matsoukas to direct an episode in the second series of “Master of None”, a comedy-drama which already had a loyal following. Matsoukas was reluctant: episodic directors are given little creative freedom and she is a self-professed control freak. But the script of “Thanksgiving”, which drew on Waithe’s own experience, offered the chance to portray a story previously untold in TV drama: the coming out of a black lesbian. The episode won an Emmy and cemented the creative relationship between Waithe and Matsoukas. “There was immense trust. She really gave me that story and let me take it where I wanted to,” she says.
When Waithe wrote the screenplay of “Queen & Slim” she took it to Matsoukas. The pair went backwards and forwards over ten drafts. Finally Matsoukas felt like she could paint her own picture of black life in America. “I feel like this film is the first time where it’s all on me, all of my influences, all of my life is in that frame, in those frames, in that film. One of my good friends saw it and she said…‘It’s so you’.”
The world in which “Queen & Slim” begins is brutal and ugly. Slim is played by Daniel Kaluuya, an Academy Award nominee for “Get Out”. Jodie Turner Smith, a newcomer, plays Queen. As the film opens, the two are enduring a not-terrible, not-scorching Tinder date at a diner in Cleveland, Ohio. Since the pair are dark-skinned people in America, they can’t even get through their awkward first date without systemic racism intervening. Catastrophe occurs when Slim accidentally fires a gun and kills a police officer.
When Matsoukas was scouting for locations, she drove through the neighbourhood in Cleveland where Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot by a policeman in 2014. She found herself in the middle of a police operation. At least six black people were pulled over by the police. When she saw one of them getting out of a white Honda Accord, she thought “That’s Slim! That’s him right there.” (In the film Slim drives a white Honda Accord.)
The couple in the film flee on a road trip that Matsoukas refers to as a “reverse slave-escape narrative”. In the early 19th century, the Underground Railroad ferried fugitive slaves from southern states to the free states in the north. Queen and Slim travel in the opposite direction: to New Orleans and then on towards Cuba.
Early viewers likened the film to “Bonnie and Clyde”, a comparison that Matsoukas resists: “I feel like we can’t just ever be ourselves. We always have to be compared to some white archetype…It’s not about criminals.” “Queen & Slim” is far more varied than that. There are elements of magical realism and ragged news footage of protests that recall Black Lives Matter rallies. The road trip traverses so many landscapes – the frozen and the warm, inner city and bayou – that the film’s subject becomes America itself. Across it all is written the experience of black Americans. This is a world in which the personal is constantly trying and failing to escape the political; where, as both Matsoukas and Waithe put it, “two black people [are] trying to love while the world is burning down around them.” The film itself reconciles this tension. Matsoukas sees “Queen & Slim” as fundamentally a “love story”, albeit one that is set “against the backdrop of a really racist system and institution”. The very existence of such a story, she says, serves “to honour all the people who lost their lives to police brutality and who aren’t here”.
Matsoukas trains her camera on scenes from black history that have long been overlooked: a juke joint where Queen and Slim dance the night away draws inspiration from a project by Birney Imes, a photographer who captured underground dance clubs across the South in the 1980s. In another moment of stolen freedom and joy, Matsoukas puts Kaluuya atop a white horse in tribute to her maternal grandfather, Carlos, an Afro-Cuban preacher and musician who rode in rodeos in Harlem and the Bronx. Again the political reference is oblique, invoking the “Yeehaw Agenda”, a recent attempt to recover the contribution of African-Americans to the story of the West.
Matsoukas lingers on moments of great intimacy. She shot home interiors in the style of Deana Lawson, an artist who makes even the most threadbare possessions seem luxurious. She lights black skin so that it glows, a trick she learned from Barry Jenkins, who directed “Moonlight” in 2016: “Nobody knew how to shoot black people before Barry Jenkins," she says. She is particularly attentive to hair: Queen’s braids being taken out as she tries to disguise herself; a close-up of gelled baby hairs; Slim having his locks lopped off. The risk of such an approach is that it can verge on pastiche, making black culture twee in the same way that Wes Anderson did for hipsters. Occasionally these moments tend towards the clichéd: Slim’s haircut could have been taken from the cover of Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s latest album. But cumulatively they accord dignity and respect to the particulars of the black American experience.
Over the past five years Hollywood has begun to invest seriously in black film-makers for the first time since the 1990s: Waithe, Jenkins and Ryan Coogler, who directed “Black Panther”, a ground-breaking black superhero film in 2018, have all found critical and commercial success. Matsoukas sees her fellow black creatives as a mutually supportive community. The practical implications of this become clear to me when we go for lunch at her regular spot, a soul-food joint called My Two Cents. Matsoukas found it through Instagram and, on her first visit, ended up staying for 11 hours. Now she cooks weekly with Alisa Reynolds, the chef-proprietor (“It’s annoying that she’s both so talented as a film-maker and such a good cook,” says Reynolds). But Matsoukas is more than just a friend with a shared interest. She’s helping Reynolds develop a tv show about comfort food around the world. “People need a black chef like her to have a cooking show, don’t you think?”
In the lead-up to the “Queen & Slim” premiere in November, Matsoukas and her team carefully chose locations in which to preview it: they showed it in the Fort Greene neighbourhood of Brooklyn, whose community of African-American creatives was celebrated in 1986 in Spike Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It”. Then they went to Howard University, a historically black college, during homecoming week. She wanted the film to feel “for us, by us”. The LA screening took place at the Underground Museum. Matsoukas was toasted by her good friend, Solange, who welled up as she asked the crowd to support the film. Afterwards Matsoukas posed for photo after photo.
At that screening I realised that the moments of recognition by African-Americans of their own experiences – when Queen goes hard at Slim as a form of flirting or Slim crosses himself before eating – are themselves a form of solidarity. Even the bleak finale (it’s not a spoiler to say this doesn’t end well for the protagonists) can, in some lights, be seen as optimistic. “I’m not saying only black people get it, but, like, you understand who didn’t get it,” says Matsoukas. But she wants, and needs, the film’s message to resonate with a wider audience. “I hope that it humanises us,” she says. “I hope that they are able to relate to…what it feels like, even just a little bit, to be a black person living in America today. It’s really infuriating that we have to live that way, constantly in fear, constantly on the run, constantly searching for our freedoms. I want to give them understanding of why we laugh at times, why we cry at times, why we dance, and hopefully they'll show their love and appreciation for black culture, while allowing us to own it.”
We’ll soon find out whether she has been successful. “All of my decisions really come from authenticity, creating a narrative that feels true to the black experience,” she says. “And if I base my choices in authenticity, I cannot go wrong.” She pauses, thinks, waits for confirmation, maybe reassurance. “Right?” she asks me.•
“Queen & Slim” is released in Britain in January