How does a contemporary filmmaker make entertaining black art that also responds to the world we live in? I am preoccupied with this question as I sit down with director Melina Matsoukas. Just before our conversation, I’d watched an early screening of her first feature film. I was transfixed. As the final credits rolled, I sobbed—I was utterly wrecked. Queen & Slim, a romantic thriller starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya in the title roles, is by far the blackest movie I’ve ever seen. As engrossing as it is political, the movie is an unequivocal rejoinder to the world we live in, where police brutality is a pervasive and omnipresent reality, and where a great many people still need to be reminded that black lives matter.
I am meeting Matsoukas in a conference room at The Wing in West Hollywood. For some reason, the overhead lights aren’t working. A candle flickers on the table as sunlight streams through a glass wall separating us from the rest of the space. Under different circumstances, the setting might seem romantic. Matsoukas, 38, is composed and confident. The longer we talk, the more ebullient she becomes and the more she warms to discussing her artistic ambitions.
Born in the Bronx in 1981 to a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was a professor of education, Matsoukas was introduced to photography by her dad. In high school, she began taking classes and would travel across the city and to the Jersey shore, shooting whatever caught her eye, honing her sense of composition, “trying to make beautiful imagery.” In college at NYU, she majored in math, but “then I took Calculus II, and I decided I hated math,” she says, soon transitioning from photography to film because she felt it was “elevating that as a language.”