Before Melina Matsoukas took us On The Run and flooding our timelines with Lemonade, she was a kid watching tv. “I grew up at MTV baby,” said the Queen & Slim director. “I think music videos are another form of storytelling.”
Matsoukas was drawn to the drama of Hype Williams’ visuals for DMX’s How It’s Going Down, the impact of Paul Hunter’s video for D’Angelo’s Untitled, and the ghoulish spectacle of Micheal Jackson’s Thriller. Soon, after spending years going mini projects with her cousins, she was working on getting the resources to tell her own stories.
“My first job was at an after-school center, at the YMCA. I was a counselor. I was also a camp counselor over the summers. I did babysitting, and then I worked in retail. I worked in the mall and Jersey and saved up my little coins to get my camera.”
She also rented equipment and used her contacts to help her when she couldn’t afford to pay actors to be in her projects, like the video she submitted as a thesis. “A couple of my friends were aspiring singers. My cousin was also a rapper at the time. And so I convinced him to allow me to shoot one of their videos. I really just scrounged, at least in undergrad,” she explained. “We shot at my cousin’s apartment, and we stole a bunch of shots on the subway (filmmakers are required to seek permission before filming on MTA property), and I cast family and friends in there — my brother is, in like, my first video ever. So I really just used, you know, my own little network to support my vision.”
Matsoukas was able to form the creative vision that helped her develop visuals for Solange, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, and more with minimal resources and without direct mentorship. “I looked to other people that did work that I admired and tried to emulate that for some time until I was able to find my own beliefs,” said the Grammy-award winner.
The director is currently partnering with Instagram and Howard University to connect the next generation of storytellers with mentorship and resources. Launched in February and continuing through Juneteenth 2021, the Instagram x Share Black Stories ‘Future First’ Reels Challenge will connect handpicked student storytellers from Howard University’s Department of Media, Journalism, and Film, with expert advice from Matsouksus and chosen advisors and educators from the Howard community. Each student will also receive a $10,000 production stipend to finance their creations. “Especially now that there are a lot more storytellers of color, I think it’s important that we are widening the path so that more can walk in our footsteps and create their own stories,” she said.
The partnership is one of several examples of corporate investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities made this year.
Matsoukas described the difference of “having the guidance of somebody who has been through those situations and dilemmas as a director” could have in a young filmmaker’s career. “I think there’s so much pressure on you, you know, and trying to figure out how to, number one, formulate a vision and a voice, and then communicate that to your crew and how to hold strong to your ideas, but also how to compromise when you need to,” she said. “Having somebody to guide you through all those decisions, I think it’s really important, and something I didn’t really have and I wished I did. And I find real joy in being able to do that for the next generation of filmmakers.”
“The partnership with Instagram and Melina Matsoukas to #ShareBlackStories speaks to [the] heart of the preparation and creativity of our students,” said Gracie Lawson-Borders, Ph.D., dean of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. “We value opportunities for students to not only showcase their work but elevate and expand the reach of their storytelling.”
“Howard holds a very special place in my heart,” added Matsoukas, who held the first screening of her debut feature film on the historic campus. “It was a really overwhelming and satisfying feeling as a filmmaker to be able to share it with those students and then to be able to talk to them afterward. It was one of, honestly, the best experiences of my life.”
Students chosen for this unique opportunity will have their projects amplified on Instagram’s channels, introducing their talents to a broader audience. “This also illustrates the power of working together to advance the knowledge and cultural understanding across the communities. And, the Cathy Hughes School of Communications is supportive of this and any partnerships that facilitate this,” said Lawson-Borders.
The music aspect of the reels feature marries her love for music and storytelling. “I’ve always loved the partnership between music and film. I think there’s real storytelling in music. I think it’s just another form of dialogue, another script you want to say, right? Music — it can tell you how to feel. It can create a mood. It can create a tone. It can lean into an emotion or not,” she said.
“I think that the Instagram reels, and other forms of platforms that exist now that didn’t exist when I was coming up, they offer an opportunity to be seen,” Matsoukas continued. “It’s no longer about getting an opportunity. I think it’s about making your own opportunities.”
Preparing to direct several episodes of Insecure’s final season, she remarks that the next must-see tv title could come from “one of my mentees.”