Lena Waithe: Why Beyoncé's 'Homecoming' Isn't "Just Another Concert Film" (Guest Column)
'The Chi' creator (and Emmy-winning writer) reflects on Netflix's concert documentary, which earned six Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding variety special.
"If you surrender to the air, you can ride it." That’s how Homecoming, Netflix's concert documentary based on Beyonce's two-night 2018 Coachella performance begins. With a quote from Toni Morrison. We shouldn’t be surprised Beyoncé chose to honor Ms. Morrison before she passed. She gave her her flowers while she could still smell them. It was as if Beyoncé knew Ms. Morrison’s words would eventually become precious antiques we all would handle with care.
That quote embodies everything that Homecoming is. It's a collection of artists that are rehearsed within an inch of their lives, but when it's showtime — all the rehearsals go out the window. On the big night, whatever happens, happens. Good or bad. It doesn't matter. Because at that point they're riding the wave they’ve been preparing for their whole lives.
I think it’s easy for audiences to think of this as just another concert film. We’ve seen iconic concert films before. Diana Ross singing in the rain in Central Park. Whitney Houston performing for the troops after they’ve returned home from The Gulf War. But this is different. This concert is seen through the eyes of the performer. And her approach is poetic, breathtaking, exhausting, painstakingly particular, and even though it’s meticulous, she still allows room for there to be rough edges.
What's most impressive about her directorial style is how unafraid she is to go from rough to smooth in a matter of seconds. It’s as if she’s jumping double Dutch. Flipping back and forth between the loud, vibrant colors of her and her dancers performing on stage to grainy images of her quiet life at home with her family, beautifully captured in black and white. One second we’re watching her command an audience of millions and the next we’re watching her FaceTime her husband, giddy about the fact she can finally fit into one of her old costumes. She does the thing our icons before her weren't able to do — she holds onto her humanness for dear life.
When we hear Nina Simone's voice come down from the heavens while dancers interpret the lyrics she’s singing, we can't help but mourn the fact Ms. Simone never got the chance to be her complete self for the world. Beyoncé seems hyperaware Ms. Simone's gifts weren’t cherished while she was alive. So Beyoncé forces us to cherish them now. She knows Ms. Simone suffered in silence so she wouldn't have to.
Even though the concert is a tribute to Beyoncé's career, it almost seems as if she wants to turn the attention away from herself. Just like Halle Berry knew her being the first African-American woman to ever win an Academy Award for lead actress wasn't really about her at all — it was about Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. Just like I knew being the first African-American woman to ever win an Emmy for best outstanding writing in a comedy series wasn't about me either — it was about all the funny women of color that had come before me. I knew they'd been beating on that door for decades, so when I finally came along all I had to do was turn the doorknob.
Homecoming is a tribute to blackness. It's a seance. It's a resurrection of all the ancestors that sat at Woolworth counters and demanded to be served. It's a love letter to historically black colleges and universities. It’s Beyoncé's way of reminding us that even in the whitest of spaces we have the right to be ourselves. And not just the part of ourselves that make others feel comfortable. She never gives the audience exactly what they want — she gives them what they need. Whether they know it or not.
Beyoncé is the first African-American woman to ever headline Coachella (the live stream of her performance was the festival's most-viewed performance and the most live-streamed performance of all time on YouTube, with 43.1 million views). And her approach to documenting this epic performance never loses sight of that. The weight of this momentous occasion is captured in every frame. She is the Jackie Robinson of Coachella. And just like Mr. Robinson, she knows everyone is watching. Every cut, every music cue, every glance, every image is a chance to make history. And she does.
Watching Homecoming, it’s clear Beyoncé loves being black. It's also clear she loves being married to Shawn Carter, she loves being a mother, she loves challenging herself, she loves performing, she loves her fans, she loves surprising people, she loves the journey it takes to become an icon.
But if there's one caveat to being black, it's this — we are told we have to be perfect to matter. And even though deep down we all know that’s not really true, it doesn't stop us from always striving for perfection. It's a cross we all bear. And after watching Homecoming, it’s quite clear Beyoncé carries that cross very well.