Critic's Notebook: Beyonce's 'Lemonade' Is a Revolutionary Work of Black Feminism
Beyonce's new visual album is a masterwork by a black woman for black women, about a subject they know well: how to turn nothing into something.
Is Beyonce’s new visual album, Lemonade, a feature film? It’s a 56-minute narrative movie mixing music, documentary and experimental elements. This Womanist fairytale — featuring American Southern, Voodoo and Afrofuturist utopian imagery — is most of all a personal film, though co-directed by seven people, including Beyonce Knowles-Carter herself. (Director, star and something more, Beyonce is redefining authorship. As a black woman, that’s a necessity; she has to rewrite all the rules if she wants to work and evolve in movies.)
And, as she gets more personal, she gets more political. "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman," Malcolm X says early in the film in a sampled speech. This is a movie made by a black woman, starring black women and for black women, especially for herself and her daughter Blue. It shows the personal journey she's been on, a sort of awakening, and remarkably brings the viewer on that same journey.
Her last visual album, 2013’s Beyonce, was a collection of videos, one for each song on the album, some of which she also co-directed. The treat of that was seeing the variety of roles she could play, like a Greta Garbo or Elizabeth Taylor acting out many scenarios yet always maintaining her own persona. Beyonce was like an old-fashioned movie star. The imagery for “Partition” was especially classic Hollywood, and an oh-so-rare opportunity to glimpse a black woman as the lead in a film noir.
Lemonade digs even deeper. It cuts back all the macho gristle leaving only a strong matriarchal line. Visual references are from an (unfortunately) secret canon of women, black women directors like Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).
What’s most revolutionary and cathartic about Lemonade, though, is that it dares to make a new canon, finding references in the unphotographed past and future simultaneously, a land of no men. “F**k you, I’ll build anew,” Beyonce seems to say with this daring and necessary work.
Lemonade is a feature film, but one that pushes the form a few steps further than fiction/documentary “hybrid” films. Beyonce utilizes Khalik Allah (director of 2015 doc Field Niggas) as a 2nd unit director (credited also as cinematographer) capturing Super 8 interviews with real people that are weaved in throughout. And rather than having different directors each responsible for a video, as in Beyonce, here each of the seven directors’ work is edited smoothly into one whole, with spoken word by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire in between songs. The enunciation of her words in these poems, as well as silences and some naturalistic but haunting sound design, make us stop and take these images seriously. (This has the inverse effect of the recent Harmony Korine-directed Rihanna video for “Needed Me,” with its circa-2002 slow-motion booty rolls, which seemed very much “music video” in nature, and served as a reminder that Spring Breakers was little more than that sort of throwback.)
And the form and style of Lemonade is also its narrative, of Beyonce moving from isolation to strength through uniting with black women, and leading them. The sections of the narrative are labeled: Intuition, Denial, Apathy, Reformation, Forgiveness, Hope, Redemption. In “Intuition,” the women she will later lead are glimpsed in fragments, the movement is underwater and the message is opaque.
Then, in a cheeky gesture, Beyonce stands on what looks like the steps of the Metropolitan museum (the setting for real life tabloid drama involving Beyonce, her husband Jay Z, her sister Solange and a mystery other woman) and she wails, “Are you cheating on me?” as water gushes from the building. She lets her intuition loose and then smashes windows with a baseball bat, acting gloriously unhinged.
Later, while exiting the section marked “Apathy,” she adopts a Kente country look that helps ready us for Beyoncé going cowgirl in a song with her Texas twang (and pulling it off, of course). Then, about halfway through, the narrative escalates in a gorgeous transition from the Superdome to imagery of Beyonce leading a line of women in sheer white dresses, which look both ancient and futuristic, as they walk across swampy waters and through the weeds. This section is a strong allusion to Daughters of the Dust, the Julie Dash film also referenced in her last video, Formation, directed by Melina Matsoukas. Daughters of the Dust is an unfairly ignored classic, perhaps the most important film in the shamefully sparse black woman cinematic canon.
And then, later, after “Forgiveness” and intimate scenes in which Jay Z appears, comes “Redemption.” It’s here that Beyonce, like a religious figure, seems to have successfully led those black women in white to a pastoral setting, where daring black women who’ve been picked on in the media can gather and heal. We’ve already seen Serena Williams twerking her Olympian body earlier in the film. Then in this section, in what looks like a utopian feminist (no, Womanist) cult, we see black women in flowing, colorful clothes sitting on porches. There’s Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhane Wallis, Winnie Harlow, ballerina Michaela DePrince, and, most poignantly, the mothers of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
There’s something witchy about this gathering of women, as in everything in this film. Early in Lemonade there’s the incantation: “They don’t love you like I love you. They don’t love you like I love you. They don’t love you like I love you.” Lines like “her hips grind, pestle and mortar, cinnamon and cloves” allude to a very female sex magic. And then later, more ingredients: lemons, lots of sugar and more kitchen witchery in an old-fashioned recipe for lemonade from Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie. In home video footage of Hattie’s 90th birthday, we see her say she took lemons and made lemonade, as all black women who want to work, survive and also thrive must do.
What unites the black girls, the mothers and daughters is this sweet nectar and instructions how to turn nothing into something. Lemonade is even stronger than blood.
Miriam Bale is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Daily News, Film Comment, Sight and Sound and other publications.