I moved [to Los Angeles in 2003] to get my master’s at the American Film Institute. I worked as a production assistant while I was in school, and then, a couple of videos into my career, Beyoncé hired me to do four videos [for songs from] B’Day. My career kind of catapulted from there.
Green: You’ve worked with so many dynamic women with distinctive points of view. What’s that been like?
Matsoukas: What I do for Beyoncé is not what I do for Lena Waithe; it’s not what I create for Issa. I try to make work that’s authentic to them, instead of saying, “Oh, you’re a black girl and this is how you should look; this is how you should be represented.” We’re not a monolithic group of people. We’re very diverse, even though we are of the same culture.
Green: Why did you want Queen & Slim to be your first feature film?
Matsoukas: It falls in line with my politics and my values. I like to make things that create empathy and understanding for our culture. Queen and Slim are not the same; they’re not meant to be together. They weren’t getting along on that first date, and they probably wouldn’t have seen each other again if they hadn’t been forced together by this shared experience. They were forced to become vulnerable with each other.
And we wanted to shed light on police brutality, on all the fallen soldiers we’ve lost because of this oppressive institution. I also wanted to showcase black love and unity, not just romantic love. Black unity is our greatest power against oppression. What is represented on-screen is not just the love between those two characters, but the love that the community shows Queen and Slim.
What I loved about Queen & Slim is that it’s everything. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama. At times, it’s almost like a documentary—there’s brutal reality—but then some of the scenes seem fantastical, like we’re in a dream. Even the darkness can be beautiful.
Green: What was the atmosphere on set like?
Matsoukas: Well, when we first got to Cleveland, there was a polar vortex. I was literally in a blue snowsuit looking like the Michelin Man trying to direct this scene. Everybody knew that we were doing something very serious; it was not fun and games. It was really trying at times. We were fighting to tell our story and shooting in places that weren’t used to being shot, and that comes with a certain amount of effort.
Green: Making painful things beautiful is a running theme in your work.
Matsoukas: Black culture is the biggest commodity in the world. It’s shipped around the world, stolen from us, exploited, and then underappreciated. It was really important for me to showcase it in a beautiful light, to show that the true value of life is community, not what you have or what you own.