Melina Matsoukas Touched Nerves

We take music videos for granted. In about 35 years, they’ve gone from an alleged scourge on the musical imagination to a form of oxygen. Every so often, one comes along that touches a nerve or causes a scandal. Back in February, on the eve of the Super Bowl, “Formation” stopped the nation. It was another Beyoncé sneak attack, but also a statement piece and a work of art. And for a month, the intent of its imagery — Beyoncé atop a sinking New Orleans Police Department cruiser; the witchiness of her wide-brimmed hat and her seemingly spiritually possessed head bob on the porch of a manse; a young black boy dancing before a phalanx of militarized cops — was deconstructed, debated and defended.

Beyoncé – “Formation” Video by beyonceVEVO

This was Beyoncé, of course. But it was also Melina Matsoukas, who directed “Formation.” Ms. Matsoukas has given us delirious Pop Art rubbed with jerk (Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”) and romance suffused with eye-watering tenderness (Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” starring Rihanna). She also got the ball rolling on Lady Gaga’s seminal place in the current music-video firmament: the twisted, Nan Goldin-esque house party known as “Just Dance” (2008) is hers.

In addition to making the video of the year, which is up for a Grammy, Ms. Matsoukas is an executive producer on “Insecure,” Issa Rae’s HBO comedy about being black, female and in Los Angeles, and directed half of its first eight episodes. When I caught up with her last week, she was generous enough to interrupt a hair appointment at a Brooklyn salon to talk about 2016. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

At what point did you get involved with “Formation”?

Right after I came back from Cuba last year, after the family vacation. Beyoncé was performing at the Super Bowl, so she wanted this to come out right before that, obviously, to set up her performance. She wanted to shoot in two weeks. And because it was also my birthday, I probably didn’t even really think about it for a week.

That’s a great birthday present.

It was. So I didn’t work on it, because I wanted to enjoy my birthday. I still have this habit, I guess, continued from college, where I procrastinate up until the last moment. So at 2 in the morning on a Sunday night I came up with this concept. I sent her the treatment and ideas maybe at 5, 6 in the morning, thinking that, oh, I’ll hear back from her later in the day, and she responded right away, of course, and was like, “Come to my house and let’s talk and let’s do this.”

You stay up late for her like the rest of us!

Thankfully, Beyoncé stays up to deal with me and my procrastination, as well. Beyoncé also stays up to deal with herself. She is probably the hardest worker I know and is very dedicated to her art, and that is why she’s so successful.

It was exciting seeing the world re-engage with a music video as a formal work. We weren’t just talking about Beyoncé with “Formation.” We were talking about history, current affairs, art and politics.

That wasn’t anything expected. I had no idea that it would have that reaction and initiate those kinds of conversations. That was very satisfying as an artist to be a part of that. I feel like there’s been a lot of racial injustice in our community, and we’re hungry for somebody to say something and for somebody as strong as Beyoncé to say something and show value to people of color.

Can you talk about some of the photographers and filmmakers whose work you like?

I grew up falling in love with music videos and those images: Hype Williams and Mark Romanek, David Fincher and Diane Martel and Paul Hunter, just from the video side. I grew up also watching a lot of independent films and foreign films. I come from a very multicultural background, and the African-American experience is very important as well, even though my mom is Afro-Cuban, but I grew up watching Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.” I just got to meet her, and that was one of the most iconic moments, I think, of my life.

How did Issa Rae come into your life?

She was sent from the heavens. No, I got the script for “Insecure” from my agent. I was in New York at the time, and she was in L.A., we had a really bad video call, and I begged them to allow me to get in a room and really pitch some ideas to them. So, two days later I was in that room, and we just spoke the same language.

Between “Formation” and “Insecure,” which are very different, you were involved with two of the year’s cultural touchstones. What now?

I feel like I’m now just starting to get to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and hopefully that brush becomes broader and I get to do that with a film and continue to do that in TV, and I’ll probably continue to do a couple of videos here and there. The reason I got into filmmaking was super naïve: to change the world, you know? To really make the voices that we don’t get to hear heard, and the images and the stories that we don’t get to see seen. I would like to normalize that.

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