Melina Matsoukas’s first feature film, Queen & Slim, starring Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple forced to go on the run after killing a police officer in self-defense, is stylish, sexy—and unflinching in its portrayal of American racism. The November 2019 film was inspired, after all, by videos of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner during their fateful police encounters and feels even more relevant today. “I watched the video of [Sandra] standing up for herself, and I related to it so much,” says Matsoukas, known previously for her high-profile music videos and HBO’s Insecure, for which she serves as an executive producer. “It’s an experience many Black people can relate to.”
Fast Company: How did you decide to become a director?
Melina Matsoukas: I came from a politically minded family, and I was brought up to give back and [fight] for people’s rights. The weaponry that you chose was up to you. I felt like film could be my weapon. I also grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and was an MTV baby. So while everybody else was creating short films at film school, I was making music videos for my friends.
FC: You directed Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, which is filled with references to institutional racism and Black pride. Were you conscious of using filmmaking as a form of activism?
MM: I wanted to represent [Black] culture in a way that we hadn’t seen before, in a celebratory way. I also wanted to speak to struggle and trauma. It was exciting for both of us to step into that visually. Beyoncé was brave with a lot of the imagery. I had never visualized her as a political artist before, and I hadn’t done that in my own work before. That was a turning point.
FC: What drew you to Insecure?
MM: One of my agents sent me the pilot script, and immediately I was like, I’m in. [The show reflects] my story in some ways: I was a Black girl navigating the world, having to code switch, and struggling to find my identity, but also, and at the same time, seeking strong relationships with Black women. I was used to being the only Black woman in the room, and for once, [while directing episodes for Insecure‘s first season] I wasn’t. That was really empowering. I think that’s what that show is about.
FC: Did you and Queen & Slim writer and coproducer Lena Waithe get any pushback from production executives about the political nature of the film?
MM: Hollywood is just starting to see the value of stories that are courageous and about people of color. We worked with an [independent studio] called Makeready, and we were able to maintain creative control. Lena and I had the final cut. We didn’t take notes really from anyone except ourselves.