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.