“Queen & Slim,” Melina Matsoukas debut feature film, which was released to audiences Thanksgiving week, caused a wave of praise and criticism. Matsoukas, joined the movie’s costume designer, Shiona Turini, and producer Pamela Abdy, at USC’s Norris Cinema Theatre to answer questions and discuss the film.
Some of the conversation surrounds a protest scene where ( spoiler alert ) a black kid shoots a black police officer. This moment is juxtaposed with a sex scene between Queen and Slim. These debates occurred during production, said Matsoukas.
“I liked these two things together, but I didn’t know if that was the proper way forward. And so that was one of the things that we argued about,” said Matsoukas.
“Thankfully it works because there was no other way to cut it, and it wasn't until I was in the edit, and I'm like, ‘Oh wow,’ this is what this entire film is about. It's about these two characters, two people falling in love as the world is burning down around them... and it all made sense.”
“Queen Slim” is Matsoukas’ first feature film. She began her career making music videos for some of the most influential artists. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry and Whitney Houston are just a few of the musicians Matsoukas has directed.
As her career progressed, she moved from music videos to commercials, then television. Her most recent projects include HBO’s hit show “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae and “Master of None.” It was “Master of None”’s eighth episode in its second season, “Thanksgiving,” that brought Matsoukas and Lena Waithe together.
Despite her experience and background in film, Matsoukas said she still had to conquer a learning curve.
“There are so many obstacles in shooting,” Matsoukas said. “It's like a marathon. I say videos are something like a sprint and you have to learn to pace yourself.”
Matsoukas relied on her team, explaining that people like Turini and Abdy kept her focused. “Part of being a director and a producer is surrounding yourself by a strong crew,” said Matsoukas. “We don't always have the best crew...but these women right here were my anchors, and also Lena Waithe.”
It was also Turini’s first time working on a film. She described the challenges that come with such a large project. “Every person who appears on camera has to be in costume...Melina, she wants every single person to be costumed, every extra, the people you are never ever going to see.”
Slim’s tracksuit was one of the most challenging costumes. Turini explained that she had over ten iterations of the outfit before coming up with the final look. “It [had] to be a very specific red, not too bright, not too dark. You had to see it at night...And it had to feel authentic, like it would really come from Uncle Earl’s closet.” Turini ended up making the tracksuit herself.
Everything in “Queen & Slim” was filmed with intention. Matsoukas wanted to make sure the film felt authentic. For her, that meant not shooting on a soundstage but, traveling across the country so the actors were informed by their environments.
“I wanted them to feel the cement below them and see the passing American landscape, ”she explained.
Starting the film in Cleveland was also deliberate. Matsoukas had scouted the city a few years before when shooting a commercial in the area. “I think of this film as a reversal of [an] escape narrative. They’re going South instead of North, and Cleveland was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before slaves would get to Canada. And so that was also historically really important.” Matsoukas recalled seeing four to six cars pulled over by police officers on a single road as she was scouting in the city.
Matsoukas added, “it’s also where Tamir Rice was killed, and we wanted to honor so many of the black men and women who were who were killed by law enforcement, so it had this real meaning.”
Since its release, “Queen & Slim” has been compared to Bonnie and Clyde, the classic criminal love story of a young couple on the run. But, Matsoukas does not like that comparison.
“I don't like that black films are always compared to some white archetype in order for audiences to feel like they understand it,” Matsoukas said. For Matsoukas, there is a clear distinction between the two stories.
“I think it's really diminishing...I think there is huge differences between who Queen and Slim are, and the visuals are not criminal. They didn't choose this life.”
When a student asked what Matsoukas hoped viewers left theatres with, she emphasized that she wants people to discover it on their own.
“I don't want to dictate how you should feel about this film,” Matsoukas said. “I wanted to cause a dialogue. I want you to talk about it with your friends. I want you to try to think about what we meant and to translate the images how you see fit.”
For Matsoukas, that is what art is, and it was imperative that the film remain true to their vision. “Both Lena and I had the final cut...it's very rare for first time filmmakers,” said Matsoukas. “We don't have to take anybody's notes. We just put out the movie the way that we see fit.”
“This is very much through our lens through my lens through Lena’s pen, through our gaze, it’s not filtered through anybody else,” said Matsoukas. “We wanted to give something to our community that was for us and by us and so that’s what we did.”