Author Topic: THE PROVOCATEUR BEHIND BEYONCÉ, RIHANNA, AND ISSA RAE  (Read 558 times)

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THE PROVOCATEUR BEHIND BEYONCÉ, RIHANNA, AND ISSA RAE
« on: March 01, 2017, 03:30:55 pm »
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Melina Matsoukas, a director of music videos and television shows, had just returned home from a trip to Cuba when she got a call from Beyoncé, asking her to direct a video for a song called “Formation.” Matsoukas had directed nine of Beyoncé’s videos, and considered her “family.” But this assignment was unusually demanding. Beyoncé was working on “Lemonade,” a deeply personal “visual album” that touches on betrayals in black marriages—her parents’ and, reportedly, her own. “Formation” would be the first single, and an introduction to Beyoncé’s new aesthetic: both vulnerable and political. She wanted to release the song the day before she performed it at the Super Bowl, which meant that Matsoukas would have to submit a video within a few weeks. “It was the fastest delivery I had ever done in my life,” she told me.

When I visited her loft in Hollywood recently, Matsoukas opened her rose-gold laptop and pulled up the video. The brassy opening beats began as Beyoncé crouched on the roof of a police car, wearing a red-and-white blouse and a matching skirt: evocative of the rural South but made by Gucci. Matsoukas, who is tall and thin, with dark hair and high cheekbones, radiates a disconcerting hyperassurance. (She’s a Buddhist, with a fluctuating practice.) She is, as she says, “very loud and New York,” but her apartment projects an almost hermetic cool: Africanist art, a golden skull on a shelf, a tar-splashed vanity mirror.

After Matsoukas agreed to direct the video, Beyoncé invited her to her house in Los Angeles, and explained the concept behind “Lemonade.” “She wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family,” Matsoukas told me. “And black men and women—how we’re almost socialized not to be together.” This was a fraught subject for Beyoncé. She and her husband, the rapper Jay Z, are among the most famous couples in the world, and they had long been surrounded by rumors that he was unfaithful. Beyoncé considers herself a feminist, but for black women feminism can be a tenuous balancing act—advocating for women’s rights while supporting black men against racism. Black feminists have often been forced to pick between being politically black or politically female. “It’s an unfair struggle that only black women can understand and relate to,” Matsoukas said. With the “Lemonade” album, Beyoncé was publicly calling out the men in her life, an unexpected and, to her fans, thrilling decision.

The video for “Formation” would be an anthem of female and black empowerment, set in Louisiana, where Beyoncé’s maternal grandparents are from. “We spoke about the South, New Orleans, her mother’s history as well as her father’s,” Matsoukas recalled. The concept suited Matsoukas, who is known for videos that retain contemporary hip-hop’s commercial glamour but feature black women as the heroes. While the lyrics offered a certain amount of feminist swagger—Beyoncé promises that, if a lover pleases her, she “might take him on a flight on my chopper”—there wasn’t an obvious story line.

As Matsoukas develops an idea for a video, she spends hours browsing online and through art books and magazines, looking for images that resonate. “I treat each video like a thesis project,” she said. Stacks of old sources are piled behind her couch: books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Noam Chomsky, and C. L. R. James; back issues of Wallpaper; math and science textbooks from college. For the “Formation” video, she found ideas in the work of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Octavia Butler. She began to conceive scenes of black history, from slavery through Mardi Gras parades and the Rodney King protests. “I wanted to show—this is black people,” she said. “We triumph, we suffer, we’re drowning, we’re being beaten, we’re dancing, we’re eating, and we’re still here.” She wrote out a treatment and sent it to Beyoncé in the middle of the night. Within hours, the singer had written back to say that she loved it.

Matsoukas, looking for a set that resembled a plantation house, rented a museum in Pasadena and decorated it to summon “Gone with the Wind” and “Twelve Years a Slave.” Then she had her art director “blackify” the house, hanging French Renaissance-style portraits of black subjects. Films about slavery “traditionally feature white people in these roles of power and position,” she said. “I wanted to turn those images on their head.” Matsoukas planned technical details to create a sense of verisimilitude, shooting some scenes with a Bolex camera—for a “grainy look,” like that of documentary footage—and others with a camcorder. She hired a camera operator named Arthur Jafa, who had been the cinematographer of “Daughters of the Dust,” an iconic 1991 film about Gullah women in South Carolina whose focus on black sisterhood echoes throughout the “Formation” video.

Matsoukas had two days to shoot Beyoncé, between her rehearsals for the Super Bowl. She devised a scene of Beyoncé performing on top of a squad car, as it slowly sank into the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. “I wanted it to be a police car to show that they hadn’t really shown up for us,” she told me. “And that we were still here on top, and that she was one with the people who had suffered.” She shot the scene on a Los Angeles soundstage, with an artificial lake backed by a blue screen made to look like New Orleans. A crane on a barge suspended a camera overhead while a lift lowered the police car, and Beyoncé, into the water. Matsoukas operated another camera from a speedboat. “Everyone was scared, because the water was cold,” she said. “And Miss Tina”—Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles—“is calling me, like, ‘You’re going to give her pneumonia, and she has to perform at the Super Bowl.’ ” Beyoncé, who was wearing a wetsuit under her clothes, didn’t complain.

In the first edit, the video ended with an image of Beyoncé sinking into the water, but the singer wanted the final note to be more uplifting. A friend of Matsoukas’s had recently joked about the “black-girl air grab,” an incisive gesture made with your forearm upright as your fingers stretch toward the ceiling and then close in a fist. In extra footage, Matsoukas found a portrait of Beyoncé sitting in the plantation house in a white dress, half in shadow, air-grabbing as she faced the camera. “It just felt so perfect,” she said. She spliced it in after the drowning scene as an emphatic last gesture.

The response to the video was immediate and contentious. On Slate, a documentary filmmaker named Shantrelle Lewis accused Beyoncé of profiting from tragedy, writing, “Are we in need of mainstream blackness so badly that we’ll mistake its exploitation for validation?” Police unions throughout the country protested, saying that Beyoncé had an “anti-police message.” But the video was enormously popular among fans and critics, winning a Grand Prix Lion Award, at the Cannes Lions Awards; Video of the Year at the B.E.T. Awards and at the MTV Music Video Awards; and, earlier this month, a Grammy for Best Music Video. “I didn’t know the video was going to incite all those conversations,” Matsoukas said, closing her laptop. “But I was very pleased it did.”

In the “Formation” video, a black man wearing a yellow T-shirt and a black Stetson rides a horse through a deserted alley, edged with shrubs and red brick walls; his white Adidas sneakers are fitted with spurs. The scene was inspired by Matsoukas’s maternal grandfather, Carlos, an Afro-Cuban preacher and musician, known to friends as “the Cuban Nat King Cole,” who rode in rodeos in Harlem and the Bronx. “We’d see him on his white horse, and he was just this regal-looking black cowboy,” she recalled. Her maternal grandmother was a Cuban maid, who brought her six children from Havana to New York after the revolution. Matsoukas’s paternal grandparents were Greek and Polish Jews living on the Upper West Side. Her parents, David and Diana-Elena, met through one of Diana-Elena’s brothers, who had encountered David in a socialist student group.

Matsoukas was born in 1981 and grew up in Co-op City, a sprawling housing development in the Bronx. Her father worked as a carpenter, and her mother taught math in a local high school. When Matsoukas was eight, the family moved to Hackensack, New Jersey, but as a teen-ager she often returned to the city to go clubbing. “I was just trying to be grown,” she recalled. “Young girl trying to do too much.” She read Malcolm X and Assata Shakur, and listened to socially conscious hip-hop by Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest. “She’s always been an old soul, and she’s always been confident,” her mother told me. “I sometimes had to remind her, ‘Melina, I’m the mother here.’ ”

In high school, Matsoukas began taking photographs—including portraits of her friends, dressed in Afrocentric clothing—and she went on to study film at N.Y.U. and cinematography in the graduate program at the American Film Institute. She admired the directors Spike Lee and Mira Nair, and imagined making films that documented the lives of people “who look like me and think like me.” Her college thesis was a music video featuring a friend who was a singer, filmed on the subway and in an apartment building in the Bronx that her father owned.

Her first paid gig—two hundred and fifty dollars—was a video for a song called “Dem Girls,” by her cousin the rapper Red Handed, in Houston. “It was just in the hood, doing hood stuff,” she said, laughing. The result, which featured an assortment of preening video girls, was distinguished less by its imagery than by its precise focus and framing. Matsoukas shot in black and white, with split screens showing contrasting views of the same scene: gold-chained rappers playing dominoes set against children running through the grass.

After she finished graduate school, an agent named Inga Veronique got her a job directing a video for Ludacris and Pharrell. The song was a strip-club anthem called “Money Maker” (“Shake your money maker like somebody ’bout to pay ya”), but, Matsoukas said, “I wanted it to feel rich.” Borrowing from fashion photography, she posed models in front of bright-colored backdrops and lit them as if for a photo shoot; to accompany one chorus of the song, she created a montage of gleaming watches, sunglasses, and stacks of cash. Veronique said that the video was “fashion-y without beating you over the head with fashion.” The song went to the top of the hip-hop charts, and the video drew attention from the industry.

In 2006, on the night of the MTV Music Video Awards, Matsoukas met Jay Z and Beyoncé at a club in New York, and Jay Z hailed her as a rising star. Matsoukas shook Beyoncé’s hand and told her, “I’m coming for you.” Two months later, Camille Yorrick, a record executive who worked with Beyoncé, called to ask Matsoukas to direct four videos for a forthcoming album. “I had only done four videos in my whole life!” Matsoukas said. “I was really scared.” Still, her work appealed to artists’ managers. “The thing that stood out to me about her early videos was the way she made people look,” Yorrick said. “She just made them look really beautiful—people of color, white people, it didn’t even matter.”

As Matsoukas made videos for such singers as Whitney Houston and Jennifer Lopez, she often relied on highly stylized settings. Generic lyrics could yield generic imagery: she set Lady Gaga’s “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” in a moodily lit mansion filled with piles of money, and Robin Thicke’s “Sex Therapy” in a moodily lit mansion filled with acquiescent models. Her videos were often less concerned with narrative than with what the film theorist David Bordwell has called “world making.” Unlike other directors, she selects the wardrobe for a video, and creates mood boards of clothes and accessories for her performers. “Fashion is as much a character in her work as everyone else,” Yorrick said. She is also unusually capable of coaxing performances out of musicians. “She knows what she wants, and she knows how to command a set,” Yorrick went on. “She’s a negotiator—she negotiates her way to the best product.” Beyoncé said of Matsoukas in an e-mail, “She is a force, deliberate and methodical.”


Read more at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/the-provocateur-behind-beyonce-rihanna-and-issa-rae