While many make their way through college groping at an idea of where their life is heading, director Melina Matsoukas always had tunnel vision. When it came time for the 36-year-old to narrow her focus and study a specific craft, she headed for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and chased it with a stint at the American Film Institute, where she got her MFA in cinematography and did her thesis in music videos. As an MTV baby, she always had her sights set on what would inevitably become her career.
“As a filmmaker, I always felt you could be the most experimental in videos because you were coming up with the whole concept yourself,” explains Matsoukas. “I always wanted to start out there and really hone my skills and use it as a learning process. It was something I was super passionate about. Music videos are something that are dear to my heart and I’ll probably always be involved with them.”
Over the past decade, Matsoukas has become one of the strongest visionaries in music videos, sitting in the director’s chair for some of the most striking visuals in the arena. Though she got her start at Black Dog Films, lensing clips for Ludacris (“Money Maker”) and Lloyd Banks (“Help”), it was the four videos she shot for Beyoncé’s 2006 album B’Day that solidified her status as an emerging creative. Since then, she’s worked with a litany of all-stars spanning Lady Gaga to Alicia Keys, scoring the GRAMMY award for Best Short Form Music Video with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Best Music Video for Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
It’s with the latter artist that Matsoukas has made the most noise in her videography. “I didn’t expect the reaction it received,” the director says of “Formation,” the surprise song and video released ahead of the 2016 Super Bowl that depicted powerful visuals addressing police brutality and black pride. Having developed a close relationship with Beyoncé, Matsoukas was able to pick her brain as they put the video together. “I went into it trying to bring out her vision and what she was going for with this new approach and new album [Lemonade],” she says. “I think we speak the same language and we’re great collaborators and [we] created something that spoke to the world.”
But more recently, Matsoukas has hit a career pivot. As she began to dabble in commercial work, she found herself wanting to tell stories in greater detail, and TV was becoming the perfect medium. “I was waiting for a piece of material that really spoke to me,” she says. Soon, her TV agent found her the pilot script for HBO’s Insecure, created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, and she knew she had to be part of it. “TV’s in a great new landscape where we’re able to tell stories that we weren’t able to tell before and develop characters in a way you can’t do with film because there’s so much more material and time. So you really get to dive deep into these interesting stories.” When it came to the script for Insecure, Matsoukas “was so taken aback because I feel like Issa had written a part of my life on the page and I related so much to what she was saying,” she says. “I never really saw myself as a comedy director, but I knew I had to be part of telling the story.”
Insecure, which debuted last fall with eight episodes, follows Issa Dee (Rae) as she navigates the dicey waters of friendship, ambivalence about work and a relationship where she feels stuck. Matsoukas not only helmed four episodes, she signed on as an executive producer as she identified with the stories in such a realistic way. “It was being a black woman and not always fitting in and being the classic image of what we think of as a black person and trying to find your identity and where and how you fit into the world,” she says. “Also having to deal with racism and feminism and masculinity and really strong female friendships that I know I have in my life. And to show women in that way, supporting and cherishing each other and also fighting and disagreeing and that being OK.” Meanwhile, Rae credits Matsoukas for the “directorial vision” she brings to the series. “She pays attention to so much stuff that I don’t and that makes the show better,” Rae says.
For Matsoukas, exploring long-form narratives through a small-screen medium has become an outlet beyond Insecure. She directed two episodes of Netflix’s Master of None, including the heralded “Thanksgiving” episode where actress Lena Waithe, who plays Denise opposite Aziz Ansari’s Dev Shah, became one of the first black women in recent memory to come out on TV. “I think people are hungry for something else,” the director continues. “The entertainment world has been very repetitive and stagnant. There’s so much racism within entertainment and TV and film, it’s just a part of our culture. This is a way of fighting back.”
Matsoukas is currently shooting season two of Insecure, which will have another eight-episode run starting July 23, and is keeping her options open to filming something for the big screen. And while she’s taking steps forward into new mediums, she doesn’t plan on turning her back on her roots. “Music videos are my passion, and maybe I’ll do one a year for that special project or person,” she says. “But right now, I’m focusing on television and film and working in a narrative space.”