Here’s the Problem With Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Video

Here's the Problem With Beyoncé's 'Formation' Video

What’s left to say about “Formation,” the new music video from Beyoncé and director Melina Masoukas? The singer-songwriter has once again stopped the internet and made everyone look. But more importantly, Matsoukas — who has directed the pilot for Issa Rae’s potentially groundbreaking new HBO series “Insecure” — seems like a talent on the rise. In “Formation,” she evocatively conjures a circuit of deep south black worlds with aplomb, switching formats from HD to grainy 16mm to blurry, near-surreal VHS, while tagging set pieces that have iconic power.

However, much of the fervor originates not from Matsoukas’ artistry, but from a pop star of Beyoncé’s reach and complexion indulging in what many have mistakenly pegged as agitprop.

The latest pop culture-inspired “Conversation About Race,” which the video has inspired, reflects a certain fog of war. The current state of the Obama era finds the majority of African-Americans more economically disempowered than when it began. Despite the cultural and political ascendance of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the talented tenth” — people like Barack Obama and Beyoncé Knowles — the change promised during the first week of November 2008 has really been a “Conversation” that continues, ad nauseam, but bears little fruit.

Certainly forces beyond the White House, namely social media and a new generation of prominent black web activists, have brought increased scrutiny toward police violence and a great understanding of the toll the great recession took on black communities nationwide; more than a third of black wealth was erased by the economic downturn. But how does “Formation” add to that awareness?

The illusion of importance that has greeted the video’s release has inspired countless think pieces almost as quickly as it accumulated views. The pop star’s Super Bowl rendition of the song, in which she and her back-up dancers appeared to take on the aesthetic of bygone Black Nationalists groups, speaks volumes about its serious aspirations. The arguments swirling around the socio-political intent of the video, which features images that recall the sordid aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a host of underrepresented African-American milieus in the deep south, mistake the forest for the trees. The use of evocative symbols of black pride does not constitute political intent; Beyoncé’s financing of a multi-million dollar homeless shelter in Houston is a much more significant contribution to the notion that informs #BlackLivesMatter than her music video could ever be. Unfortunately, that doesn’t strike the media as newsworthy or inspirational.
The song and video’s interests are more colloquial; they don’t support all this weight being placed on them, both by Beyoncé’s handlers and the media. “Formation” juxtaposes the stark imagery of imperiled black spaces with Beyoncé’s White Girl Problems. “What happened at the New Awlins?” is the question posed at the video’s beginning by Messy Mya, a queer YouTube sensation from the area who was murdered in 2010. (Her death contributed to another year in which the Crescent City was the murder capital of America.) Her query is answered by “Formation” in startling fashion, when we see the singer splayed out of the top of a New Orleans police vehicle that has been inundated by a Katrina-like flood.

But once Beyoncé starts singing, the cliches — disconcerting, given the provocative imagery — pile up. The singer alludes to “haters” and bemoans “paparazzi” in the songs first two verses, ones that are juxtaposed with images of black press members madly photographing the singer as she poses on the police vehicle talking about her “cocky fresh,” rhyming that phrase with a reminder that “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress, I’m so possessive that I rock his rock necklaces.”

We’re then treated to images of her wearing a lace dress, in a sitting room or dancing in a hallway, interspersed with shots of her daughter and two other girls — both darker and more conservatively dressed than she — running in a circle through an equally sunlight interior that exudes a sense of a negro paradise lost. Matsoukas and Knowles’ baroque survey of basketball gyms and strip mall parking lots, empty swimming pools and crowded parlor rooms, antebellum porches and mid-century churches, proves to be an aesthetic marvel even if it isn’t a political statement of much coherence or purpose.

The street corners, bars and underpasses in which the militarized presence of police forces not to be trusted is never far hovers over the jauntily edited piece, an aesthetically pleasing ride through imagery that is by turns evocative and potentially traumatic. In its glimpsing of both the working class black south and its bygone Creole “aristocracy,” part of the “Conversation” the piece has engendered involves the legacy of intra-race color consciousness within the black community.
Black feminists have warred online over whether Beyoncé is a putting forth a substantive form of activism through her work or simply appropriating these stark and complicated images for her own commercial gain. Some black female critics, such as Colorlines’ Yaba Blay or Death and Taxes’ Dianca London, express skepticism over a famous African-American woman — one whose high yellow complexion has no doubt been a big part of her crossover appeal — reasserting her tribalistic pride for both “negroes” and “creoles” while endorsing the values of capitalism that have historical oppressed those same individuals.

Others, such as Cosmpolitan’s Jasmine Hughes and author Jesmyn Ward, have seen it as a galvanizing moment for the intersection of popular culture and black radical politics. Ward, writing for NPR, suggested that Beyoncé was “not only glorifying her ‘bama’ blackness, but, with that kind of fashion iconography, American blackness as a whole.”

I don’t buy it. No matter how much Red Lobster Beyoncé suggests we consume or whether one has hot sauce in her bag, blackness and negritude are here simply modes of style to provoke the masses to talk about Beyoncé and her every evolving public presentation. It also provokes people to consume, of course; tickets for her next tour will assuredly be even harder to come by. Red Lobster has seen sales increase 33% since the video’s online arrival early Saturday.

Although a protest of the NFL has been planned for next week by a group claiming Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 halftime performance of the song amounted to hate speech (an opinion echoed by former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani), one doubts any of this will empower Harlem or Bed-Stuy natives to resist the rising tide of rents that have consumed their community. It’s equally unlikely to somehow close the black/white wealth gap, one that far outstrips differences in average annual income.

Much of America remains clueless about the lasting effects of its history’s darker chapters. But its future must be reckoned with as much, if not more than, the past. It may be unfair to anoint Beyoncé a spokeswoman for black liberation, even if she seems to be asking for it. However, if she’s going to demand that her followers stand in “Formation,” and if the commentators are going to take her at face value, it’d be nice to hear her articulate her beliefs and intentions — that is, beyond the allure of her own commercial viability, wrapped in the symbols of black revolt.

Brandon Harris is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film at SUNY
Purchase and the director of “Redlegs” (2012). His writing has appeared in
The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New Republic, The Daily Beast and N+1.

READ MORE: Channing Tatum is the Mirror Image of Beyoncé in the Season 2 Premiere of ‘Lip Sync Battle’

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Comments

Javanna

Men have a tendency to generalized and criticize any idea that they don’t understand. To credit Beyonce with being a revolutionary is a stretch. What you can do is appreciate the message that video sends to a young black girl who has been taught to be ashamed of her natural hair,nose complexion…etc. For centuries black women have been victimized and usurped upon by White society while being imitated and having our physical attributes repackaged and resold to us by White media. Beyonce is visually showing us the people that don’t really know her that she is proud of a heritage that is real to her, and encouraging other black women to do the same.

marie

I need to see video.free expression

Deasya Holmes

None

chelsea

this article is a mess. i skimmed through it and there isn’t a problem with her video, she’s just embracing her skin. and i think it’s a great thing that she uses this video to raise awareness about police brutality.

Dashawn Mitchell

White people will never get it. We try to bring light to these problems because you people have given yourselves all of the power. We try to show people what’s really going on because frankly, most well off white people are living in a fantasy, while the rest of us are dealing with a harsh reality. SYSTEMATIC RACISM

Jay Tee

Do you feel compelled to write such a poorly constructed article to get traffic? As far as your comment "one doubts any of this will empower Harlem or Bed-Stuy natives to resist the rising tide of rents that have consumed their community."– Why don’t you ask those who live in those communities what they think? Or offer a suggestion to enlighten all of what Beyonce should do to inspire this action as you seem to hold her responsible for doing so. Touching on another comment, specifically ask the WOMEN in these communities. And who the hell cares what Giuliani says anyway? I’m surprised you are a Prof at Purchase. This piece reflects badly on Indiewire.

Todd Duvardo

Yawn…..this is all about the color green. It has no meaning beyond that. Null.

Bristow

I can’t believe how whiny everybody is about a Beyonce song that embraces her black heritage. White people are acting crazy, get over it pleeeease and let everyone get on with their lives. And it is a BANGER

Alaya

First of all…. the adlibs and voice in the beginning of the song is Big Freedia the queen diva…. who is the New Orleans Bounce Queen!

Brad

There is something very important here. Let’s suspend every and all and acknowledge it. I will.

NikkieJ

I found an amazing article that really encompasses what "Formation" really was about…something this author somehow completely missed. Also, the imagery of her in a lace dress had to do with New Orleans and its past, Storyville, which was mainly made up of black women. Much of the imagery pulled from the past in ways to empower. Art doesn’t aim to give a defining voice…but maybe to start a real conversation. As stated by the article I found "Formation, then, is a metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action. For the black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement. To be successful, there must be coordination, the kind that choreographers and movement leaders do, the kind that black women organizers do in neighborhoods and organizations. To slay the violence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, we must start, Beyoncé argues, with the proper formation. The proper formation is, she contends, made possible by the participation and leadership of a blackness on the margins."

The comment section won’t allow me to post the link to the article, but this article does not do it justice at all.

Michelle Sams

I respect the author’s vulnerability on this subject, as well as the many commentators. If we are ever going to ever progress to a better multicultural understanding of loving each other better, we must be willing to respect others’ opinions from their own bias and also be able to see our own bias as well. Mr. Fox, I see your point, but I must disagree with your almighty statement. You mean to tell me that the semi-socialist state of China does not oppress minority groups? Also, you mean to say that socialists don’t oppress minority groups who share a different political opinion. I encourage you to be wary of making statements like that.

Audrey Thomas

This is an artistic form of entertainment…. Nothing is to be gained or lost in the real world. Beyonce will get paid for doing her job as usual.

Anany

Regardless of Beyonce’s intentions (the accusations in the article are things she would never admit to anyway), if more African-Americans buy her music or concert tickets because of this song it speaks volumes about their own experiences of racism and how they are not happy about the current situation.

mizzemm

"You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation" – she knew exactly what she was doing, and I don’t agree that the lyrics are vapid and conflict with the gravity of the video. I think it’s all a genius commentary on how SHE feels about being black in America right now, as a famous woman with power…I think she acknowledges the hypocrisy and the almost insanity of that juxtaposition – she in her givenchy dress on the one side, people drowning and being shot on the other, amidst this backdrop of sordid black history…"the best revenge is your paper" = this is the only reason you listen to me: my money, my beauty. So I’m going to use it and own it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see exactly what’s going on…or that I can’t comment on it because I’m supposed to be grateful.

Sarah

Have you seen Messy Mya? His pronoun is he. He isa man, not a she. Maybe you’re thinking of Freedia, who I think goes by she and also is part of Formation? And Messy Mya says, "What happened at the New Wildins," a club in New Orleans. That is what the video that that line is excerpted from is about… an incident at that club.

disgusted

If you want to be viewed as an important voice or role model for the black community, maybe you should stop twerking and spreading your legs. Have some dignity and self pride and speak intelligently instead of with nothing but innuendo. This video is nothing but a vehicle to sell tickets. She has no intention of actually taking up a cause and empowering the black community to become everything we should be; strong! When you dress like trash, flip the bird and constantly open your legs, what do people think of you? When you abandon your children, carry a weapon and commit crime, where does that get you? When you stay with your family, support them, love them, guide them, you give strength to them and yourself and your community! Before we, as a community, can finally come together as whole, we MUST educate ourselves, become whole families, be active in our communities! We must make our families and communities important to ourselves to gain respect from others! Our men must model that to our sons or we are doomed to more of the same.

DJ

Lyric correction, s/b: I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

Swebster

All you’ve said is probably quite right, here’s the problem though: she’s gonna sell no matter what she talks about, even if she doesn’t begin to understand what she’s trying to say, at least she’s talking about something that matters.. Not to mention, unlike indie filmmakers and musicians, she reaches young people who wouldn’t even bother to think about the issue otherwise

Bree67

To suggest Beyoncé is concerned about her own commercial viability is ludicrous. She IS COMMERCIALLY VIABLE already. Has ALWAYS BEEN COMMERCIALLY VIABLE. That’s a given. Girlfriend needs no help, no song, no video to be viable in any way, shape or form. I don’t know who you are Mr. Brandon Harris, but to me this article feels like your sad attempt at being VIABLE. Or a hater. Maybe both? Enjoy a good tune with a great beat and dance. That’s my plan. Thank you once again Bey. You are truly beyond compare.

Sheila

Oh here we go again…someone from media trying to push their opinions on me. I have intelligence enough to determine what Beyonce’s song and video mean to ME. Her work, this work is an expression of who she is and where her head is at in this moment…this moment…not how she though yesterday or will think tomorrow, but NOW! And is me and only me who should determine what that work is saying to me and I alone will determine how I respond to it Don’t try to put her or me into any one box…her work is like a painting of the impressionist, Salvador Dali. Each person ho looks at his work has a different impression of what he was trying to say…so it is with Beyonce’s "Formation"…it up for interpretation by the viewer and the listener.

kristen

With the amount of times I wanted to stop reading when the author of this threw in words like "aplomb" "colloquial" and "negitrude", I’m surprised I made it through the article. Just as you think her video is a commercial ploy, I think the way you actually wrote this article is similar – maybe not for commercial fame, but literary. I don’t understand why we can’t just watch something and be inspired – or why we can’t let others watch something and be inspired… Even if we don’t agree with the message or are fearful of what it might inspire others to do. I imagine it’s out of a fear that one’s place might be taken by the rising of brilliance and talent that is out there.

Jane

Just add – the real question is does Beyoncé lend voice to issues happening right now here in America. YES. Do these issues need to be addressed Yes. Then does it matter how that message is put across or is it because BlackLivesMatter do NOT matter that Twitter is going mad -that the black privileged might want to help put a spotlight on real issues she is not a politician she is a musican. Art is what ever you make it, express it. Banksy is not dissected every time he uses his paintings to make a political statement. This is racism for indie to have this published. Freedom of speech does not exist once you step outside the narrative.

Jane

It astounds me that it is mentioned that Beyounce skin tone is part of why she is here today. Does not confirm White supremacy that they can pick who from us they find acceptable. Beyounce mainstream fame is not controlled by black people. Secondly does she have no right to voice because she high yellow. Hmm smells like divide and rule my brother.!!

Fellow from Scandinavia

After following some really cruel racist and misogynist conversation on internet about the topic, I was happy to find this article and its sensible critique.

I also agree, that it is not correct to expect Beyonce to explain her art and wash it to be more tolerable for privileged white audience. Why are some so confused and insulted in America? Where exactly does this art hit, because it sure is not what it’s said to be (racist, violence-loaded etc)? As an outside observer, it seems so obvious that white Americans are threatened by this rawly empowering and unapologetic piece.

Also I was disappointed in how Harris here obviously avoided Beyonce’s chrystal clear feminist agenda. The third and coming fourth wave of feminism is a fight for equality among genders, social classes, and races. One cannot exist without the other.

Keely

Wow. All that political content and you just can’t find it? Katrina and white cops with their hands up and a Black woman reclaiming her heritage and power aren’t signficant to you? "Stop shooting us" means nothing? Hmmmmmm…

dana

hey steven j packer– the author, brandon harris, is black.

No One

Steven J Packer, what? The author, Brandon Harris, is a black man, not a white as you suggest. And he does have a paragraph where he addresses black feminism briefly.

AaronJ

Was this column supposed to be serious or satire? Because, if the former then it failed miserably. If the latter, then I would I would like commend Mr. Harris.

In this mega-media, social-media driven world almost nothing is going to happen without causing a frenzy of utterly absurd but also utterly extreme revulsion and recrimination. That’s just the way it is. The fact that anyone, and especially the media, takes ANY of this BS seriously is depressing and comical at the same time.

Beyonce is an artist, yes. But she is a pop artist. I don’t say that diminish her in any way, for I have great respect for the woman. But a pop artist exists in a different space and reality than, well, those who aren’t pop artists. She is going to produce something like this for two reasons: to provoke, and thus get massive free publicity; and to entertain. It seems as if she has succeeded on both counts (at least for most people).

To ask her to "articulate her beliefs and intentions" beyond the work she has produced, and to ask this because "her commentators take her at face value" — again, I ask, was this serious or was this satire? What responsibility does she have to anyone, beyond herself, to articulate anything? Don’t like it? Don’t watch or listen. There are always going to be people whose entire lives revolve around being offended. The best thing we can do as a public is to ignore them, and let artists like Beyonce do what they want to.

We can like it or not. But I just cannot see where "responsibility" on the part of Beyonce comes into this at all. At. All.

NOT YA DAMN BUSINESS

i hope all yall white people know that your just being whiney little hoes. leave beyonce alone shes literally just expressing her black culture and obviously you guys have to come at her and attack her for it

Negritude

Errrrrr??? Was this written by a Bminus gasbag attempting to pass college? I don’t know how I got past the mispel of Beyoncé’s video director…you lost me having Masoukas and MaTsoukas precede your whole hogwash that followed…hogwash where you regurgitated what should be intelligent references but lazily name dropped. This is tantamount to hate speech. If you’re going to pontificate: 1) Taje a position an md spell names correctly, quickly. 2) Sepatate the issues: Beyoncé is not running for office, she’s an ARTIST. Mxxxm ��

selina

Of course, a white male journalist, wouldn’t get it. Black people can never love on ourselves without it being picked apart. Let us be…

nash

i believe beyonce is using her stage performace to endorse her tour. i do not see her being an advocate for stopping the violence of any kind. if she does have some sort of charity. why is it not publicized like her music and tour dates.

Jenny eriksen

Yes, i found it very interesting!!!
J

Q

Roc necklaces…not rock necklaces.

REally?

Pop culture inspired conversation about race? Oh, that’s nice. At least this whole racial equality thing is just a fad.

Nicole

It’s not rock necklaces, it’s "Roc necklaces". As in Rockafella….Records.

Brandon G

so Beyoncé is less of an advocate for Black people/culture because she references Gevinchy gowns and fancy jewelry? And we should be regretful that her funding of a homeless shelter didn’t yield more media attention in terms of its contribution to black pride (because homeless people are ALWAYS black…. Right smh).

Big surprise: a (probably white) man is saying what a black female icon should do, say, and promote. A black woman needs a "clear message to be viable" but a white man can create art purely for art’s sake and it gets hung in museums; its elusive message praised as the stuff of genius.

Maybe the point of the video is that it’s not your’s to ponder. Just because Beyoncé isn’t adhering to your prescribed notion of what black identity is doesn’t mean that she’s just exploiting the cause for publicity. A lot of people will feel empowered from this video, Gevinchy and all, she made the video for those people.

Kevin

you stupid educated ivy league black girl, your dumb

Brandon

Can’t we simply just ENJOY the Video for what it is and the entertainment value it provides without trying to be so hypocritical all the time!?!

JToy

"I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress, I’m so possessive that I rock his rock necklaces."

Based on that transcription, I humbly suggest that you don’t know enough about Black culture to have any idea what you’re talking about. What would we do without a white guy’s hot take?

Tash

It’s not "the New Awlins"… it’s "the New Wildins". The video the quote is from is titled "Booking The Hoes From New Wildin". Be a journalist and do some research. Then you might also realise when you said "her" death you meant "his" death. As much as Messy Mya liked to blur gender lines, he didn’t identify as female.

Enrique

@ReganSharp
How is the NFL a racist industry?

pamela Billups

I love that she has incorporated her life history into the video with poetry, music, and dance, and history, these people are haters and jealous because she makes money lets face it music sales whether it is negative or positive, But lets be real YOU GOT TO BE GOOD AT IT! and that she is, she has the paper to prove it!

nate

nice try, brandon harris is not a white male. so many articles about this video already! This is one of the better ones. But please clean up those typos

Regan Sharp

We should take a second to consider that her controversial performance that got everyone talking was at an event that celebrated one of the most racist organizations in this country: the NFL. Protesting the Super Bowl–every year–over the continued use of a racial epithet as a team name, would do a lot to convince me that she cared more about racism than personal gain.

Rita

@Jdecano thanks for your comment. Common sense is a rarety these days. This article is ridiculous. The fact that people are trying to dismiss beyonce, specially white cultures, proves her point. Everyone assume they can tell a black women what is good from whats not. That’s how it feels like, sadly. And we are in formation to embrace our cultures and our blackness in total freedom without anyone´s approval. Thats the message in get from this song. Dismissing beyonce, unless you can prove she is NOT black, is completely irrelevant. Anyone criticizing her is trying to say "you are not good enough or qualified to speak up against stigma or injustice because of so and so". Really? those writers are so dishonnest. They do not identify with the black cultures at all. Listening to Kanye West is not all that there is to it. You don’t know a damn thing about the struggle but they think they can write to criticize her wrong doing. What have you accomplished for black women? Start with your qualifications on the subject then you have my attention. So far she has it.

Aaron Arabian

This piece convinced me of the issues with the video, coming from an intersectional feminist/race theory perspective. However it is easy to take that lens to really any piece of hip-hop music and pull it apart bit by bit. It is important to really take the hip-hop lexicon as a whole into consideration. Rap songs don’t often hold up as individual statements the way maybe a Bob Dylan song would. Rather they tend to work best seen as little vignettes that reveal bits of information about the musician. Persona, identity and performative representation are part of the language of hip-hop and are integral to music and part of what makes it such a wonderful art form. And I know Beyonce is mostly a pop star but this is a rap song as much as it is a pop/r&b song and so I think it is important to see it in that light. The things she says wouldn’t be as picked apart if Jay Z said them, although I think there are many reasons for that. I think a judgement about her intent cannot be made until we hear more of her music to come – over the next few years.

No

If the revolution won’t be televised, it will be pimped.

No

@ MICHAEL FOX: Tell that to the Jews of the former Soviet Union or the Uighurs of the People’s Republic of China.

william Steele

An eloquently written narrative with deep insights into the socio political stories of being Black in21st century USA, riding on a pop wave of song and dance that did not diminish race in the USA but question s ome of the messengers and their motives.

Jcedano

It seems as though art in this instance cannot be just that…art. Of course it is just enough that the issues are being discussed and the assertions in this video serve to represent Beyoncé being unapologetically black. Her references to black culture are all her own. The questions posed in the video may very well be her own and the fact that we are trying to measure the effectiveness of the song with what we perceive the intentions of her art to be stifles me. think it is a mistake to believe that her use of black culture in this song is just a commercial ploy as the timing of this video, the performance, and song are all relevant to what is happening in America right now. Just look at the race for the White House.

Steven J Packer

I can’t help but notice that the author avoids the subject of feminism, particularly black feminism, about as widely as possible despite the fact that that appears to be a point of major emphasis of both the song and the video. Shocking that a white male would avoid the topic so militantly.

Michael Fox

Socialists never ever opressed a minority group. Only capitalist values do that.

Kevin Mendonca

Isn’t it enough for the video/song to get people talking about race? Does it also have to pinpoint what the discussion should be, how it should be discussed, and where the discussion should head, and why it is important?

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