Afro-Cuban Director Melina Matsoukas on ‘Queen & Slim’: “This Film Is to Speak to the African Diaspora”

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in 'Queen & Slim.' Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

“I am a daughter of the revolution,” responds filmmaker Melina Matsoukas when asked why she named her production company De La Revolución Films. “I wanted to honor my roots and who I was brought up to be.”

In a conversation with Remezcla ahead of the release of her debut feature Queen & Slim, the Afro-Latina director – who gained prominence creating emblematic music videos for pop artists of great stature like Rihanna (“We Found Love”) and Beyoncé (“Formation”) – explains that her mother was born in Cuba and grew up a child of communism until she migrated to New York at age 10.

Through her mother, the island and the ideologies that have defined its modern history were part of Matsoukas’ childhood even if from afar. “I was brought up to honor the icons of the Cuban revolution. Che Guevara is one of my heroes in life, and has so many of the values that I aspire to have, to uphold and maintain,” she shares.

Written by Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim follows an African-American couple, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, as they traverse the southern United States in hopes of escaping to Cuba in the aftermath of a deadly altercation with law enforcement. “Cuba represents a refuge for these characters,” notes the seasoned visual artist. Their perilous road trip toward the Caribbean mirrors, for her, that of Assata Shakur — another one of her role models.

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in ‘Queen & Slim.’ Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
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For Matsoukas, the country of her mother’s birth has always embodied a sense of freedom and defiance. “Cuba is was one of the places that America was never able to conquer, and they fought it out against this huge giant,” she adds. “They’ve been able to survive as a culture, as a people, as a government, and they could never be crushed. That undying spirit, forever fighting spirit, speaks so much to the film.”

Matsoukas’ first visit to Cuba was as a college student for a summer photography course. A couple of years later, she returned with her mother and many of her extended family members. “It was surreal to be able to be in the land of your people, with your people and experience Cuba through my mother’s eyes. It was really special, just a moment in time that I will hold dear forever. We continue to go back yearly,” she says. The director admits she is fascinated by how much the county continues to change and how comfortable her relatives have become about being back in their homeland.

Matsoukas is well aware of the racism and colorism black people encounter in Latin America, which she attributes to the horrors of colonialism that still remain pervasive, “There was slavery in so many of the Hispanic countries, so that same racism has followed historically in so many of those cultures and so Afro-Latinos are very often discriminated against, ostracized and left out of the conversation,” she says. Of course, these biases are reflected in entertainment throughout the region. “When we look at Hispanic media, shows and films, you would think that these are just white countries, and that the black experience doesn’t exist, but instead it’s honestly a highlight of all of these cultures.”

Bokeem Woodbine and Indya Moore in ‘Queen & Slim.’ Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
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Black unity, as the community’s greatest weapon against oppression, guided Matsoukas’ vision for Queen & Slim. She wanted to speak about the similarities shared among Turner-Smith who has Jamaican roots, Kaluuya who is of Ugandan descent, herself and black people at large. “I am a black Latina. My mother is a black woman from Cuba, and this film is to speak to the African diaspora. We’re all from the same place; we just landed in different countries when we were stolen from our land,” said affirms.

At a critical moment in the movie, a police officer points his gun at Queen and Slim during what should have been a routine stop. A scuffle ensues, resulting in Kaluuya’s character shooting the aggressor. Audiences of color at the AFI Fest world premiere and other advance screenings have reacted strongly to that scene, clapping and cheering in response to a young black man saving his own life and that of his companion. Not only did the director anticipate the response, but she understood where it came from.

“People of color are tired of being victimized, and I knew that they wanted to see themselves fight back as victors,” Matsoukas says. “This is the effect of institutionalized racism. I knew that moment would be applauded and that it would be so charged and poignant. I’m actually really proud of that.”

Queen & Slim opens in theaters on November 27, 2019.