For the Grammy Award-winning director, when it comes to surpassing rungs on her never-ending list of goals, the sky’s the limit.
There’s something thrilling about knowing the height of your potential, being keenly aware that your wildest dreams have such a favorable rate at coming into fruition, but not knowing what those direct steps to get there look like. Stepping out and up blindly, sliding and poking your foot out ahead of yourself as if shuffling in the dark, only sure enough there is, in fact, more ladder to climb. While natural fear when contemplating the “how” of it all nestles quietly in the background, the rush of each steady accomplishment and the roar of supporters celebrating them drown it out.
Melina Matsoukas has a fan club of trendily dressed young creatives waiting for her outside of a makeshift “greenroom” in the basement of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. During her Master Class for Fusion Film Festival, current Tisch students just finished listening to her wax poetic about all the hard work and good fortune that happened to her—and that they hope will soon happen to them—14 years after walking away from the same prestigious school with her Bachelor in Fine Arts in tow.
After falling in love with filmmaking on a laughable note her first year in the program—“I went to the Meatpacking District and shot a really bad film about how women were viewed as meat and shot hanging meat in the street,” she told the auditorium—Matsoukas eventually moved on to some career-defining cinematic work. You’ve seen her fingerprint in narrative-style music videos for Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction,” Solange’s “Losing You,” Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Beyoncé’s “Formation,” with the latter two winning Grammy Awards. In addition to advertising campaigns for Adidas, Absolut, Diet Coke and Lexus, Nike recently tapped Matsoukas for their gripping black and white “Equality” campaign featuring LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kevin Durant, Gabby Douglas Michael B. Jordan, Alicia Keys and more.
With a those two Grammys and a coveted Beyoncé affiliation, the NYC-born boss’ stock became higher than ever, so high that it ushered her into the next phase of her career, one that she sees as a whole new start. “Definitely directing and executive producing an entire season of Insecure is probably my greatest achievement thus far, professionally,” she tells me later. When she showed the trailer for Season 1 of the HBO series during the Master Class, the audience laughed as if they didn’t already watch the entire series five months ago and cheer for the swift announcement of a second season, which the core team just started prepping for at the top of March.
Matsoukas had been searching for a story to tell, and asked her film agent to get her a TV agent to search for tales in that space. “I got a young black woman agent and she kinda just knew what I would be attracted to,” she says. “She sent me this pilot for Insecure. I never saw myself as a comedy director but when I read those pages, I said wow, this is my life on the page.” Insecure’s core theme—a young black woman navigating through life, love and friendships, not fitting in and not necessarily identifying with the idea of what a black woman is—also won over the hearts of hesitant HBO execs.
“We don’t normally do this. We don’t normally give a first-time creator, a first-time show runner and a first-time director an opportunity to do something together but let’s do it,” HBO’s then-President of Programming Michael Lombardo had told her, referencing Issa Rae and Prentice Penny. But Matsoukas, and the 1.18 million viewers who tuned into the series premiere on Oct. 9, 2016, are happy he did.
“I think the most poignant thing [to include in Insecure] was having those strong female relationships like Issa and Molly do, and having that strong sense of camaraderie and love and support for each other,” she says, stressing the outpour of support from her own girl gang and those who are cheerleaders of her creative eye. “I do it for us,” she continues, “for all the women and the men and the people that aren’t represented.” Now that TV is slowly starting to diversify its casts and its messages, it’s important for Matsoukas to push the perspectives of her people and her peers into the lily-white mainstream any chance she gets. Matsoukas believes that a lot of the time, racism is unconscious and systematic.
“It’s challenging in that you can’t relate because you don’t know our history or we don’t speak the same language, or I speak a certain way that is offensive to you or I look a certain way,” she says. “That’s a fight I’ll never stop fighting [but] we shouldn’t be the only ones talking about diversity and equality for women and people of color. That’s everybody’s burden to bear.”
Citing director Julie Dash as one of many integral inspirations, especially as a black woman in the entertainment space, Matsoukas is pacing herself for the long road ahead of her, knowing that people are looking to her not only for inspiration, but also for a way out. Or rather, a way in.
“I’m just so proud, you know?” she says, reflecting. “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my history. I’m proud of the women and the men who came before us who are black, and I’m proud of the women before me who are black and who have achieved so much, even though we have so much against us and we don’t have those doors opening for us everyday. We’ve really had to fight our way through. I wear that proudly and try to represent us well and continue on that path that I’ve been given and try to make it a little wider for the next person.”