When Beyonce took the stage during the halftime show of Superbowl 50 this past February and played her surprise single, Formation, pundits and fans made vague noise about politicizing the event (how dare black women show up to this, the most first world of parties, and act powerful!); few realized the song and accompanying video were merely a warning, barely an inkling of what was coming. It was both a prequel to and ultimately the next chapter in a project the world now knows as Lemonade. The artist was laying the groundwork for a stunning piece of art with this performance, a “Visual Album” that takes the conceit of infidelity and stretches it between strikingly personal and hugely sociopolitical extremes throughout its thoughtful, hypnotic 58 minutes. The story is simple, but the charges are damning: Just like her man did her, America done women of color wrong, and it’s time for a reckoning.
I don’t think Beyonce intended to drop this film/music hybrid (we used to call them “videos,” and one of the many levels this project delights at is the nostalgic one for when 4 minute music/art film mashups were a lovely, ubiquitous standard in the industry) in its entirety mere hours after the world lost Prince, but it simply underscores the awesome power of Lemonade that it serves as a de facto handing of the torch from one towering black icon to another. Not only that, it flips The Purple One’s ultra-stylized, sex-crazed male fantasy world on its head to expose the downtrodden but resilient backbone of the African American community. The backbone that gets taken for granted and loses too many men, boys, children to violence, poverty, hopelessness. This story isn’t about partying all night and winning all day; no, this is the story about worrying all night and working all day, every day. The way this film gracefully unfolds its visual tone poem about the challenges of being a black woman in America and rounds into a rallying cry for them to embrace their strength, their hope, and their unexpected power is a marvel to behold.
Make no mistake, this is indeed a Film, capital F. Despite the many modern pop culture touchstones on display in these interlocking images paired with music, I was most struck by its fealty to the likes of Russian legend Andrei Tarkovsky and his masterpiece Zerkalo (aka The Mirror), or Terrance Malick with his career topping Tree Of Life. Hushed poetry, an often somber journey through personal and political history, all told with languidly presented and immaculately framed visions flush with elemental power (all four on frequent display), delivered via clever juxtapositions of color stock with black and white. An expansive group of directors joined up with Beyonce to realize Lemonade, and while there are plenty of unique individual moments, the cohesiveness of the project is fluid and stunning. Like any great pop star, Beyonce is the hero of a thousand masks, inhabiting characters of both an idealized and familiar nature, so the viewer feels as if they’re walking beside her while gazing upon the shining star at the same time. She’s diving deep within herself to find the story she wants to tell, then she’s playfully striking out against those who’ve wronged her; next she’s even appropriating the gangster mantle to angrily threaten her enemies. Escalating into (and always never far from) a celebration of the goddess-like power women of color have and should celebrate, Lemonade almost threatens to become a fairly simplistic sermon. Then, like all things in life, it gets more complicated than revenge clichés, than anger, than even self respect. The world is a tough place—we are solemnly reminded by none other than Malcom X how tough it is for black women, and we are brought to tears by a late sequence paying tribute to the young black lives our nation has lost—and in order to survive, there has to be room for introspection, for understanding, and forgiveness. The great arc of this story bends towards this lovely redemption, but it also ends with a repeated call to arms, hinted at in Mobius strip form by the opening notes of Formation playing as the credits roll.
Did I mention the music? Oh, there is wonderful music. Sassy, sexy, forlorn, funky, menacing, magnificent, rootsy, rocking, Lemonade covers the spectrum and does it all with graceful aplomb. Again, Beyonce has collected a wide variety of talent in order to bring a depth and variety of sound to the project the likes of which we haven’t heard at these heights of popular music in many years. Discovering what aural delight is around the corner to swim around and beside the imagery is a surprisingly bewitching exercise; I finished the film and immediately started it over again, and enjoyed it twice as much the second time around. Unfortunately some film lovers appear to be put off by the singer’s notoriety and aren’t giving the experience its due because the musical corollary to artistic cinema can’t be hit singles; I hope those who feel that way put their prejudices aside and give the songs a fair shot too—that’s all they’re asking for, and they’ll give so much in return. To sum up, Lemonade strikes one as a blast of pure art from a parallel universe where Toni Morrison had pipes on loan from Heaven and went to USC Film School with Lucas and Coppola. Accomplished pop art like this doesn’t come along all that often, and in fact despite the familiar trappings mentioned above and the seemingly shopworn life lesson the title refers to, Lemonade carries the striking jolt of something truly sweet and new.