The director has reshaped the visual aesthetic of today’s biggest stars, yet her greatest challenge – reshaping the narrative around representation in mainstream media – is one that is still evolving.
In addition to being a director and producer Melina Matsoukas is a visual architect. In much the same way Louis Henry Sullivan’s modernist aesthetic fathered the skyscraper-clustered cities of today, Matsoukas is helping to create a blueprint for film and television. The media industry has long been plagued by accusations of homogeneity and courting overwhelmingly male perspectives, yet under the NYU graduates careful gaze, the stories of the Black and Latinx diaspora come to life in ways that are refreshing and universally relatable. Ultimately, Matsoukas is proving that the stories of people of color, and women, can be resonant and successful.
Her passionate dedication to exploring these specific narratives no doubt comes from her own experiences. The director came of age in New York City, which in addition to being known for its fast pace of life, boasts a vibrant cultural landscape that provided Matsoukas with endless space for self-discovery and reinvention. As did her parents, whose multicultural homelife encouraged Matsoukas to connect with her Afro-Cuban, Jamaican and Greek nationalities. “I came from a household that really valued different cultures, even some that we’re not part of. To see the value of culture is to see the value in different people. Finding my own identity has been one of my greatest journeys in life. I don’t know if it’s a journey I’ve completed yet. I look at finding identity as defining your own life and what you want to represent,” Matsoukas said.
Melding personal experiences with character-driven narratives is a formula Matsoukas frequently employs. Most recently, she announced that she would be adapting Marlon James’ seminal novel A Brief History of Seven Killings for Amazon Studios. The book is centered on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and expands on the incident to unpack Jamaica’s political, racial and socioeconomic relationship with the U.S. While the news of Matsoukas’ involvement is fairly fresh, in reality, it’s a triumphant ending to years-long undertaking. The director told UNION that she has been angling to develop the story for almost two years.
Matsoukas, whose success with Insecure and Master of None (she directed Lena Waithe’s Emmy-winning episode), illustrates her ability to reframe the narratives of those who have traditionally been considered other or disenfranchised. Her normalizing portrayal of black friendship in Insecure made Issa and Molly feel familiar to women of all colors and creeds. Similarly, her poignant treatment of same-sex relationships in Master of None eschewed the standard route of focusing on the idea of “coming out” in favor of highlighting the universality of relationship struggles, family dynamics and love. Ultimately, the episode proved that we all face the same issues when it comes to intimacy.
Matsoukas hopes to bring a similarly relatable representation of Jamaican narratives to the mainstream with A Brief History of Seven Killings. “Once I read the book I knew it was a story I had to tell. Never before have we seen a show about Jamaica or its rich culture, beautiful people and progressive history. 1970s Jamaica is possibly my favorite era in terms of music, fashion, art and visuals, and then the book jumps to another cinematic era – 1980s New York,” she explained. For Matsoukas, who grew up in the Bronx and New Jersey, ‘80s New York is an era that is both familiar and rife with storytelling potential. We sat down with the director to learn about how she plans to bring such a unique story to our television screens.
What first attracted you to the project?
Once I read the book I knew it was a story I had to tell. Never before have we seen a show about Jamaica, it’s rich culture, beautiful people, and progressive history. Also 1970s Jamaica is possibly my favorite era in terms of music, fashion, art, and visuals, and then the book jumps to another cinematic era in time, 1980s NYC! I loved the poetic language and shifting perspective in which Marlon wrote A Brief History of 7 Killings, and it immediately inspired me to capture a show in a way similar to which he represented the characters on the page.
What about the setting (Jamaica) did you find so interesting?
When you think about it, Jamaica is a tiny island with a culture so strong it’s been able to influence the entire world. Being part Jamaican, I have a strong connection to the land, the history, people, the language, the music, and of course the food. It’s a place I’ve visited many times and it always pulls you in with this immense grip that just won’t let go. Also I’m very much into illuminating places and people that haven’t had the chance to be represented before.
The novel unpacks some very complex histories, are you apprehensive at all about how the written word will translate visually?
I wouldn’t say apprehensive I’d say inspired. Marlon writes with such complexities and metaphors it feels like an enticing challenge to translate his words on screen. With a series you have time to unpack time and place, and create your own pace of story telling. Because of this I think we will be able to take our time to ensure that the layers of histories unravelled in the book find their way into the series.
Your involvement with this was a very recent announcement – how long was this in the works?
It was just announced, but I’ve been chasing the book for at least the last two years since I read it. Marlon, Eric Roth and I teamed up over a year and a half ago on the project, and we pitched it to a couple places before we found a home at Amazon.
Had you read the novel before becoming involved with the project?
Absolutely. This is was a project I ran down and lassoed instead of the other way around.
How true do you plan to stay to the novel?
I plan as staying as true as possible to the novel. It really effected me and I’d like to keep that impact alive. We may add some characters and balance to it, but my intention is to keep it as authentic as possible.
What are you most excited about?
Creating a show for us and by us.
What are some of your fears?
Too many to name, but that’s what keeps me motivated!
Photography by Richard Brooks
Styled by Bephie