In 2016, the public has been at a very odd place when it comes to black womanhood. When Beyonce premiered “Formation” last February it was her most controversial song yet. Some called it a black pride anthem, others called it an anti-police call to arms. The fire caused by the casting of Zoe Saldana’s use of blackface as Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic “Nina” was just another reminder that the public is only okay with black women if they are ready to be shrunk down to the most consumable size.
Last Saturday, Beyonce premiered “Lemonade” on HBO. The one-hour visual album reveals a Beyonce that the public had not seen before. This bears the pain she carries in multiple identities. However, the pain most overbearing is the one she carries as a black woman.
Before Saturday, no one knew what “Lemonade” was. It’s elusive trailers and Beyonce’s reputation for disappearing and then releasing content without warning made “Lemonade’s” release the most anticipated music event of the year so far. Seven directors, including Beyonce, brought the stunning visual album to life. “Lemonade” is broken into parts of the emotional stages Beyonce confronts in her journey: Intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope and redemption.
Throughout the film Beyonce holds on to her subjective narrative while weaving in and out of various artistic styles we don’t normally see her in. She reads Warsan Shire poetry over chilling imagery that calls back to Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” a film that also deals with black legacy, pain and spirituality. The final product is a Toni Morrison novel designed for visual and auditory consumption.
Every song in “Lemonade” is a subject that Beyonce has tackled in the past, however the visual poem unearths a visceral feeling that the public has not seen in Beyonce’s work before. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is arguably the most surprising song on her album, like Jack White-and-Beyonce-yelling-at-Jay-Z-over-a-Led Zeppelin-track surprising. It’s interrupted halfway through by a Malcolm X speech: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Super 8 footage of smiling black women are shown in the middle of Beyonce’s most anger ridden song yet. When the camera cuts back to Beyonce, it is now very clear to anyone who has been mistaken that Beyonce embodies the black women Malcolm X is talking about. To forget black women is to forget the most powerful force in pop music today.
The shocking moments don’t stop, in fact this declaration of strength in black women continues until the end of the film. The next song, “Sorry”, features Serena Williams shamelessly dancing and refusing to apologize for herself while Beyonce sits on a throne in the same pose Serena Williams was in on her now infamous Sports Illustrated cover. It’s a #CareFreeBlackGirl moment.
The cast of Lemonade is full of show-stopping black girls, who like Serena have been cut down by the media for their blackness: Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Quvenzhane Wallis, Winnie Harlow and Blue Ivy. Along with them are Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, black men whose killers have not been convicted despite public outcry. All of these women share a commonality, their ability to be magical and “spin gold” out of life.
Black womanhood is not the only theme Beyonce explores, but it is the only thing that remains amidst the chaos, because in the end black womanhood is the only thing no one can take away from you. Not your country, not your man and not even Becky with the good hair.
Photo courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment