Her Own Space
Melina Matsoukas — Grammy-winning director for Beyoncé and Rihanna — makes her Hollywood feature debut with the kind of story Hollywood has overlooked.
“It’s still playing stuttery,” says Melina Matsoukas. She’s staring at a wintry scene from her first feature film, Queen & Slim. In a dim room, she’s leading a team of mostly men through color edits. There’s the stuttering and also a ghostly red flare that blinks just left of center screen. “Back,” she says to the projectionist. “To where the filter was making that double-image thing.”
“It’s subtle,” says one of the guys.
Matsoukas, in a black bodysuit, black blazer, and black Fleur du Mal bike shorts, responds by saying nothing at all. Hers is a detached silence that means, I’ll wait for an alternate response.
The audience is not meant to be even slightly distracted from the white car with the TRUSTGOD plates, putt-putting across the screen. In the universe of this car, there is vulnerability, bravery, malice, history, and a quest for freedom — stakes are high. Queen & Slim is a love story that begins in Cleveland, the city where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by a police officer in 2014. In this screenplay, written by the Emmy-winner Lena Waithe, a Tinder-matched duo, portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, goes on the run in the wake of the shooting death of a police officer. It’s the filmification of ride or die.
At one point in the movie, Turner-Smith’s character, a lawyer, says to the easygoing man she just met: “Do. You. Want to be. The state’s property?” Kaluuya’s character feels the bloody weight of those words. He answers clearly: “No.”
After years of directing award-winning music videos for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, and Lily Allen, Matsoukas is now sitting in the Alfred Hitchcock Theater on the Universal lot. This is the studio where Steven Spielberg has been making hit films since Jaws. John Hughes directed his first film, Sixteen Candles, with Universal, seven years after Robert Zemeckis made his first, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, with the studio. A few years after that, Universal was under fire for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing before it was even released. It’s on this vast campus, in the shadow of attractions for fans of Harry Potter and Despicable Me, where Matsoukas is finalizing a project that she hopes will cement her career as a filmmaker.
“This movie is saying something really strong, and it’s on the right side of history,” Matsoukas later tells me. “That’s always what I want — work that creates a dialogue, that creates change, that’s going to make people think, whether they agree with it or not.”
In the studio, Matsoukas lets the pause stretch until one of the guys says, “Yeah, someone is gonna check it in the cut.”
“Are you good with this?” someone else asks Matsoukas.
The borough Matsoukas lived in until she was 10 was a devastated Bronx, New York. And in 1981, the year she was born, Paul Newman hammed his way through a film called Fort Apache, The Bronx. In a pivotal scene, black and brown activists are assembled around a corrupt NYPD precinct. They chant from behind wooden police barriers, “Let the brothers go! Let the brothers go!”
Shot on location, in impoverished grays and ashy brick, the film is populated by numb extras, and, as Melle Mel rapped of the Bronx in 1982’s “The Message,” there’s broken glass everywhere. The Bronx was burning, and it was poor, but it was also so culturally rich that hip-hop was born there. Fort Apache depicts not even a whisper of this energy. It’s the kind of film in which Ed Asner portrays a uniformed captain who says of the activists: “Gas ’em.” And that is the least of it. The movie was a hit, even after real community activists protested and then-Mayor Ed Koch called it racist.
The year Fort Apache was released, the only major film starring black actors was Bustin’ Loose with Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Stripes to Body Heat, Arthur, and Taps, there was virtually no way for people of color to see themselves represented on the big screen. Most white filmgoers only had the opportunity to watch stories — about escaping from New York and living on golden ponds — about themselves.
Young Matsoukas lived in the Bronx’s 4,000-apartment Co-op City, a middle-income housing development, with her mother, an Afro-Cuban and Jamaican math teacher, and her father, a Greek and Jewish construction worker (her grandmother lives in the complex to this day). Her parents were about communism and equality and activism, and Matsoukas was a sponge. “My grandfather was a black cowboy,” Matsoukas says. “He had a rodeo in the Bronx to get kids off the street.”
At Hackensack High School in New Jersey, where her family later moved, Matsoukas was into photography and hip-hop. At home, she watched the films of Mira Nair, The Color Purple, All About My Mother, The Royal Tenenbaums, West Side Story, Belly, and her absolute favorite, Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, an impressionistic movie about three generations of Gullah women on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island. It was also the first feature directed by a black woman to be released widely in theaters. “The queen of Black women filmmakers [is] Dash,” Matsoukas told the website Shadow and Act in August. “She was a tremendous influence … on my voice.”
At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Matsoukas went from photographing friends to shooting music videos. When she graduated, her mother offered a piece of advice: “She was like, ‘Go get your master’s.’ I was already a PA and interning on videos while at NYU, so I was like, ‘Ma, you don’t need to go to school for what I want to do. I already went to film school.’ She was like, ‘Just do it. As a black woman, you’ve got to know your craft. People are always going to question you, and you have to know.’ So I went to AFI.”
During her first year at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, Matsoukas went to school four days a week and was shooting or helping on fellow students’ films the rest of the time. “It was hard,” she says. “But it was a gateway for me to move to Los Angeles without running around like a chicken with my head cut off.” She quickly learned that music videos were a place where outsider directors could experiment and have some control.
The goal of the second year at AFI is to make a short film. Matsoukas made a music video instead. “I’m an MTV baby. I knew I’d grow into film, TV, and other mediums, but I wanted to start in video. I had quick success in that world and loved it. So I stayed there and wasn’t in a rush.” (Fourteen years later, Matsoukas would be honored with AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal, the first black woman to receive the award.)
A year after graduating from AFI, Matsoukas directed the 2006 black-and-white video for “Dem Girls,” a song from her cousin Red Handed, Scooby, and Houston rapper Paul Wall. In it, Matsoukas frames and reframes and splits frames of big hair, domino games, and long cars — it brought her to the attention of North Carolinian singer Shareefa, who was signed to Ludacris’s Disturbing Tha Peace record label. DTP was part of the launch of Def Jam South, and Jay-Z was then president of its parent, Def Jam Recordings.
For an eventual No. 1 pop hit called “Money Maker,” Ludacris brought Matsoukas on board for a video that showed off her love of the kaleidoscopic — almost every shot is set against radiant greens, oranges, and reds. Matsoukas’s ability to not overlight or underlight brown skin tones (a longstanding problem in the film biz) did not go unnoticed. She made black people look like themselves.
“I had never done something with that much money and effort,” Matsoukas said in 2010 to the website Def Pen. “Everyone was looking at me like, You don’t have the experience to be doing this. It was hard, and a lot of pressure, and even today … I work better when I’m nervous.”
In August 2006, at a post–MTV Music Video Awards gathering, Matsoukas met Jay-Z and Beyoncé in person — a few months later, she was directing four videos for the B’Day Anthology Video Album, released in the spring of 2007 with the deluxe edition of Beyoncé’s epic B’Day.
The video for the 18-karat gold “Upgrade U” is early Matsoukas at her most thematically robust. It features a deliciously cocky Beyoncé — in water, on sand, in a Rolls, on the dance floor. Matsoukas’s unwavering gaze makes clear what finery can mean to those who have been historically denied payment for their labor. In the video, Beyoncé perfectly lip-syncs Jay-Z’s guest lyrics. It’s a shimmering stunt: Rapping is difficult, folks, but yes — I can do that, too.
See also the purposefully awkward pageant video for Beyoncé’s 2013 “Pretty Hurts.” See Matsoukas’s 2009 work with Lily Allen — “Not Fair” — which plays with ideas of country music and corny moods and Allen’s perch as an It Girl. See Matsoukas’s collaboration with Rihanna for 2011’s ecstatic and tragic “We Found Love.” The song won a Grammy for Best Short-Form Video, as well as the Video of the Year Award at MTV’s VMAs. The piece tells a two-sided, victimless story of a druggy, toxic relationship and was released two years after Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend Chris Brown was convicted of assaulting the pop star.
When accepting the award, Rihanna thanked her fans, her glam squad, and “Meliiiiiiinaaa! For making this video with me.” The squeal is a moment of uplift, an embrace for being seen, but also for a collaboration that recast the narrative around Rihanna’s relationship. As Matsoukas began working with more women, her videos began to feel more like biographical deep readings. Each clip subverts personas and reclaims stories.
There may be no better evidence of that collaborative energy than Matsoukas’s career-defining video for Beyoncé’s “Formation.” Released on the eve of what would become a controversial Super Bowl 50 halftime performance, “Formation” illuminated the cultural sensibilities and influences at the soul of Beyoncé’s art.
The video’s Victorian couture harks back to Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. The words “Stop Shooting Us” appear on a wall. There are the iconic shots of Beyoncé on a sinking New Orleans police cruiser. The video, incredibly, served as a reminder to mainstream audiences that Beyoncé is a black woman. With its scenes from the ’hood, long tight braids, and bodacious choreography, the work punches back at the problematic contention that global celebrities like Michael Jordan, Alicia Keys, and Janet Jackson “transcend” race. In the video, Beyoncé’s persona is concurrently rooted in idiosyncratic Southern blackness and physical and emotional freedom. The imagery, mood, and setting of “Formation” bleed slow into Queen & Slim, like the Mississippi into the Gulf.
“We’re so few and far between in this industry,” says Matsoukas. “The opportunities I’ve been given have been from black women, primarily. They’ve challenged me to be a better artist. They’ve encouraged me. They’ve supported my career.”
That includes Issa Rae, creator of HBO’s Insecure. Matsoukas has been part of the show since the beginning, as producer and director. “Issa was the first woman to hire me in TV — when no one would because I didn’t have that experience,” says Matsoukas. “She fought to have me because she appreciated what I had done in my space. She was influenced by it, and she knew I could handle television.” A new girls club was making moves alongside the old boys. “So,” says Matsoukas of Rae, “she brought me into that space.”
Lena Waithe’s swag is on tilt. “It’s wild to say, but me and Melina, our relationship is very Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson,” she says. “ ‘Thanksgiving’ is our Off the Wall, and Queen & Slim is our Thriller.”
“Thanksgiving” is a 2017 episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, Master of None, and when the show reached out to Matsoukas about directing, she initially declined. “I didn’t want to go into someone else’s world, someone else’s [creative] language,” says Matsoukas, “all in the middle of things.”
Then Waithe reached out. “A coming-out story” is what Matsoukas recalls Waithe saying. “A black lesbian coming out on television. Never happens. It’s historic. It’s my story, and I want you for this.”
When Matsoukas read the script, she was in. The resulting 34 minutes of television put the culture on notice. “Thanksgiving” was named by TV Guide as one of the best episodes of the 21st century. It was nominated for a Black Reel Award for Outstanding Direction of a Comedy Series, and a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Comedy Series. Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, which she shared with co-writer Ansari. Waithe, though, isn’t satisfied: “Melina should have been nominated for Best Direction.”
Matsoukas was honored to work with Waithe on such an autobiographical story. “It was very much hers, and she let me do my thing. I’d call Lena, like, ‘Is this true?’ She’d say, ‘Doesn’t matter. Trust your gut.’ ” Waithe was working on the Queen & Slim script while they were shooting “Thanksgiving.” At a certain point, Waithe again told her, “I want you to do it.”
Waithe, who was also gearing up her reboot of Boomerang for BET and The Chi for Showtime, had a strong impetus for writing Queen & Slim. “I am a product of my time,” says Waithe. “As Nina Simone says, ‘You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.’ It is an artist’s duty. We’ve had Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Mike Brown. They’ve all died, and I live in a world where the cops have been let off for it. I had to speak to this. This is how I speak to it.”
“Everything about that script, and the person behind it, made me want to do the film,” says Matsoukas. “I read it, and it was everything I wanted as an artist, everything I wanted as a person, as an activist, as a woman, as a black woman. And that it’s her first film? And we could share that moment together? That was something pretty special.”
Waithe and Matsoukas are also inspired by a shared love of two cult films (the cult being black audiences) from the 1990s. There are overt links in Queen & Slim to director Theodore Witcher’s feature, the moody 1997 Love Jones. Starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long, it’s about the complicated romance between a poet and photographer. There are allusions as well to 1994’s Jason’s Lyric, a love story starring Allen Payne and Jada Pinkett Smith that revolves around a dysfunctional Southern family. Jason’s Lyric also stars character actor Bokeem Woodbine, who brings the disturbed younger brother, Joshua, to life.
Waithe calls Jason’s Lyric one of her bibles. And as Roger Ebert wrote in 1994, “Jason’s Lyric — like New Jack City, Sugar Hill and other recent films about black characters — has the boldness to go for big dramatic themes, for love, tragedy and redemption. It’s not some little plot-bound genre formula. It’s invigorating, how much confidence it has, and how much space it allows itself.”
As a way of honoring Jason’s Lyric, Woodbine was brought into Queen & Slim to play an antiheroic ally to the main characters. It’s a nuanced and electric performance — Woodbine gives himself completely over as a wrecked and needy veteran. “Uncle Earl,” says Matsoukas, “is who Joshua in Jason’s Lyric would have become.”
Even in this era of Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Bow and Dre of Black-ish, the Best Man franchise, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, black love stories in film are rare. From It Happened One Night to Casablanca to all four versions of A Star Is Born, one could come to the conclusion, if viewing feature films alone, that people of color in America seldom if ever meet-cute at the shop on the corner (despite the public’s fascination with real-life couples like Michelle and Barack Obama, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, etc.).
Were it not for Taye Diggs chasing down Angela Bassett at the end of 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, you could be forgiven for thinking that a black person in love had never run after anyone at an airport. If you watched Titanic as millions did in 1997, you could be forgiven for not knowing that there was a real-life tragic love story on the ship, in which a Haitian engineer drowned while his wife and two daughters made it safely to lifeboats.
The old Hollywood-reinforced norms could not have imagined Queen and Slim on the run, or Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Hustlers, or the multiculturalism and global popularity of the Fast and the Furious series. The death of the theater experience was unthinkable at the time of Waithe’s 1974 fave, Claudine (starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones). So was the commitment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which as of 2018 was 72 percent male and 87 percent white) to make its voting ranks more reflective of the movie-watching public.
In all this erasure of people of color, Waithe says, “we lose a lot of our humanity. It’s important for us to see us love each other in all the ways we love each other.” Queen & Slim stares back through history at Fort Apache, and at almost a century of segregated Hollywood, with intention and authenticity. There is in it a fullness of black life. There is hope, and there is action and freedom as this film reflects Americans back to themselves.
There’s love, too. Characters utter romantic phrases, even in unromantic situations: “I’ll be brave enough for the both of us.” “One dance, and we can leave.” “Trust me.” “Thank you for this journey, no matter how it ends.” “We in this together.” The characters in Queen & Slim are running, so the love is heightened, a concentrate. “It’s different when you’re black,” says Matsoukas. “Somebody’s always been chasing us.”
Matsoukas is about the entire spectrum of color. She talks about hues like lovers. Especially one: “Sea foam is my favorite. Like your greenest blue, pale,” she says. “In art direction, production design, I’ll just add a little greenish-blue into shadows and things, and it gives a lifted look.”
Back at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater, still leading color edits, pixelation is beaten back like gnats. Blood coloring has been added to one character’s ear and to another’s leg. “Yep,” says Matsoukas, “looks good.”
There’s pear-green nail polish. Aquamarine walls. Bleached white cottons on glowing chocolate skin. At a pinkish dawn, two people walk from a truck in flames. Another scene stars turquoise latex, a jade car, and a facial expression so blue you could drown in it.
“It’s one of my favorite parts,” says Matsoukas of the color-edit phase. “It’s when you get to paint. You get to perfect every frame. The beginning of the edit is like the room of what should’ve been, could’ve been, what you wish you had done differently.”
But then the project takes shape. And a black woman from the Bronx, a film director of mixed racial heritage who grew up dancing to hip-hop music, who helped reinvent music video, and who made it to the most revered of film studios, is remixing Hollywood’s traditional palette. Being in charge of color, in any medium, is an act as radical as it is creative.
“It becomes,” Matsoukas says smiling, “a story, something that’s hopefully strong and powerful. Put blues in, put warms in the highlights. Make it desaturated. Make it more colorful. Add contrast. Take it out. You wish it looked like…? Oh, it can now. Your dreams get to come true.”