“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.