ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Melina Matsoukas: Black Love

Words by
Amir George

Queen & Slim, the feature-film directorial debut of Grammy Award-winning director Melina Matsoukas (American, b. 1989, lives and works in New York) will hit theaters worldwide on November 27.

“Black love and unity is our greatest weapon against oppression.” These were Melina Matsoukas’s words as she accepted the American Film Institute’s Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal in June 2019. When asked about her idea of “Black love,” Matsoukas explains, “Black love is not just romantic, but simply supporting each other as a community and as artists.” This point is easily seen in her expansive work in the music video format with prominent Black music artists like Beyoncé, Solange, and Rihanna—music videos which could all be seen as laying the groundwork for her feature November 2019 film debut, Queen & Slim.
“The film is about very different kinds of people coming together and learning from each other,” explains Matsoukas, who committed herself to every detail of the filmmaking process, including making the move to New Orleans a year ago to begin prep. The script was penned by producer and writer Lena Waithe; she and Matsoukas initially collaborated during the Emmy Award-winning episode of Netflix’s Master of None that touched on Waithe’s personal story of coming out to her family. Matsoukas humbly explains, “We have real power in the art we’ve made together. I try to pay that forward.” It was Waithe who initially suggested Daniel Kaluuya for the film’s lead as Slim, following his breakout role in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). When Matsoukas met with Daniel, what was originally scheduled to be a five-minute coffee meeting turned into a five-hour newfound friendship, and she knew right away that he was the perfect choice for Slim. The role of Queen, meanwhile, presented an opportunity to introduce a new black leading lady: Jodie Turner Smith, a British model and actress with Jamaican roots with whom Matsoukas had worked some years prior.

Queen & Slim intends to be a defining Black love story “where we not only see ourselves represented, but are also exposed to a display of Black love that we haven’t seen before.” The story begins in Cleveland, a city that was a last stop on the Underground Railroad, and that today bears the history of the murder of Tamir Rice while still abiding by the death penalty. Queen is a lawyer that interacts with people on death row. After a date night with blue collar Slim goes on the decline, they face an unfortunate encounter with a police officer. Matsoukas imagines the film as a migratory “reverse slave escape” narrative, moving from North to South, while tracking Queen and Slim’s budding romance visually from a cold to hot climate: “As it warms up, their relationship warms up.”
To complete the cast, adding familiar faces Bokeem Woodbine and Chloë Sevigny was a dream come true for Matsoukas. Obsessed with Woodbine’s character from the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric, Melina imagined the role of Uncle Earl as a sort of evolution of that persona—someone juggling with inner struggles while having a genuine heart. Sevigny plays Mrs. Shepard, a conservative Southern wife to an open-minded husband played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, thus rebuking the idea of Black stories being attributed to White archetypes, a’ la Bonnie and Clyde comparisons.

Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

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