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The Living Civil Series: Melina Matsoukas

Name: Melina Matsoukas

Birthday: January 14, 1981

Where is she from? Bronx, New York

What does she do? Phenomenal filmmaker & director

How is she living civil?

As the first ever female director to win MTV’s Best Video Award for “We Found Love” by Rihanna, Melina Matsoukas is #creatorgoals in the flesh. Melina is the “directHER” (word to Ava Duvernay) behind some of our decades most iconic, authentic, and impactful visual productions. Melina was the woman sitting in the director chair screaming “CUT!” on the set of hit HBO series Insecure, the “Formation” music video by Beyonce, the “Equality” commercial for Nike, and much more. Yes, you read right, we said Beyonce, your eyes are not playing tricks on you.  Melina played a major role in the revolutionary visual album Lemonade. Matsoukas resume is jam packed with our favorite classics and gems and you can also see her work as a film maker speaks for itself.

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Introduction: Because Of You

Melina is a multicultural masterpiece who was raised in the cradle of hip-hop, The Bronx. Mixed with Greek, Jewish, Jamaican, and Cuban, Melina grew up in a very culturally influenced home. Her parents were activists who set the tone for Melina to creatively express herself and be knowledgeable on important topics like racial equality, and women empowerment. Her mother’s sense of art, belonging, history, fashion, and education are her foundation as a creator and you can vividly see this in her work and career journey. Her parents wanted her to do something important with her life, no matter what it was and Melina stuck to that.

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Part 1: We Found Love

Growing up with a strong family foundation Melina has always had a sense of self. She knew that she wanted to be great and change the world but she wasn’t set on a particular career path. After high school, she attended NYU and majored in math simply because she was “good at it”. Once Calculus 2 hit, she realized that math was not for her. Like most of us who are in the process of figuring out our career paths, it takes different experiences, and trial and error to hone in on who we truly are and what we want to do in life.

Just because you don’t know exactly what you’re passionate about don’t give up on finding your purpose in life, try new things until you find your light.

Melina eventually ended up changing majors. She switched to film and minored in African American studies. After undergrad, Melina went on to graduate school for cinematography. Often times, creatives and entrepreneurs ride the fence on whether a college education is a necessary move for their careers. Although education is highly valued in America, we have seen many successful creatives who only hold a high school diploma. For Melina and many others like Issa Rae, and Amanda Seales college was a great move. All three of these creative and innovative ladies have an educational background in African American Studies which is heavily implemented into their craft and are apart of Insecure, one of biggest shows of this generation.

 “Getting an education isn’t for everyone but it was for me, it gave me that confidence that I needed as a film maker and I know that I always have that education to go back on.” – Melina Matsoukas

NYU gave her the space to meet and network with other filmmakers and gave her the opportunity to get to know herself and personal history as an African American woman. Melina recognized her love for film and gained skills that set her apart from other filmmakers. College is where she found out exactly what she wanted to do with her life, and the rest was eclectic history for the now award winning director.

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 Part 2: Formation

After finishing her education Melina’s career did not take off immediately, she had to pay her dues. She worked as a PA, swept floors, and got coffee in efforts to be on set and learn from those who came before her. As Millennials and creatives, we tend to think that we are “owed” and have this idea that we don’t have to work for free. We sometimes feel as though we are talented enough to just jump right into it and start making millions of dollars but that is not the case. Get in formation, pay your dues, and stay humble along the way.

“You’re never better than you think you are, stay humble.” – M. M

The first music video that she created was for an experimental workshop, shockingly that was the first music video that her professor had ever seen in his workshop. Melina treats music videos like a thesis project, using great research, purpose, and structure. She often mentions that she was an “MTV baby” spending most of her youth indulging in music and music videos. Some people say that the true art of the music video has died but not with Melina. She brings it to life through her work every single time.

“A good video has the right visuals, a well-conceptualized story, and should be exciting and elicit a reaction.” – M. M

On the set of Insecure, Melina is not just the director, she holds the title of creative director as well. Who remembers the super dope red “n****” sweat shirt that Issa Rae had on during the speed dating scene on season 2 episode 1? That was all Melina, from the couch pillows in Issa’s living room to the way the lighting hits everyone’s melanin. Melina’s can go from directing a music video for legends like J. Lo and Pharell to doing commercials for Coca-Cola, Addidas, and Lexus. Melina prides herself on creative diversity. She is known for doing more on set than just directing; she often has a heavy hand in other details that contribute to the entire feel and essence of the project like wardrobe and interior design.

“Creative diversity shows you’re capable and you’re not just like a one trick pony because people will try to put you there.” – M. M.

Although Melina prides herself on creative diversity and doesn’t mind dabbling in uncharted territories, she has also been one to turn down opportunities that did not align with her end goal. Melina talks about turning down the billion dollar cosmetics company L’Oreal. Though she felt this was a great opportunity, she didn’t want to get thrown off of her own path. As a creative who is navigating their way in this crazy industry, it is important to not get distracted by tempting opportunities and paychecks that are being thrown your way.  Only take on projects that are pushing you towards your end goal even if it seems like an opportunity of a lifetime. There will be other opportunities that are actually for you, know yourself, know your worth and know your end goal.

“Formulate the goal and figure out how to get there. Hone in on your skills and create as big as a weaponry as you can to achieve that goal and try not to get distracted” – M.M

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Part 3: Insecure 

Now that you’re in “formation” for a successful creative career, let’s talk rejection. After Melina completed graduate school, she applied to be a director’s assistant and did not get the job. Although she was butt hurt, this rejection led her into creative freedom. She began making her own music videos and working on her own projects. While finding her own way in just a couple of months, she ended up at the same level as the director who rejected her months prior.

“You might not think I’m dope but I do.” – M.M

Fast forward to today, television is now where Melina spends most of her time. According to the executive producer of Insecure and the HBO team, first-time creators, show runners and directors are not usually given an opportunity to create their own show but. Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, and Melina Matsoukas and we can all agree that they are doing an impeccable job. Now Melina is on her way to creating her own television show because of the success of Insecure which not yet named, but we all know with her creative juices, she will not disappoint.

As a creative, you should expect just as many no’s as you do yes’s. Being rejected in any area happens, but know that it is only leading you in the right direction, which is YOUR direction. Once you have honed in on your skills and know exactly what you can bring to the table, don’t get yourself down when people don’t like your ideas, you don’t get that dream job, or you get fired. Oprah got fired at 23 from a TV anchor job and look at her now! What’s for YOU is for YOU. Dismantle all insecurities, believe in yourself and stay strong because the best is yet to come.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 06: (L-R) Executive producers Larry Wilmore, Melina Matsoukas, Issa Rae and Prentice Penny arrive at the premiere of HBO's "Insecure" at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on October 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Conclusion: Equality

An on going theme in Melina’s work is equality for women and minorities. Melina describes herself as a radical who wants to change the world in any way that she can and she has executed this vision with her work on Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album and Insecure. Through collaborating with other powerful creative women like Beyonce and Issa, monumental projects for women and black women especially have also been produced. These projects became the loud voice that we all needed to hear for all of the times our voices were silenced whether that be in a relationship, the work place, or society in general.

“Know that you belong and know that you can make your own way as many doors that are slammed in your face and as many people that don’t look like you in a room you are meant to be there and you are going to have to be that much stronger” – M.M

We love Melina because she is living proof of what happens when African-American women are placed in positions of power. We are capable of leading and creating amazing work that can generate revenue. We are not just big booties, hood rats, or baby mamas, we are intellectual forces to be reckoned with. Our unique stories deserve to be shared and valued on a mainstream level, the proof is in the ratings.

Continue to #LiveCivil and keep create ground breaking work for the culture!

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