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Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is a Celebration of Black Identity (Analysis)

Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' is a Celebration of Black Identity (Analysis)


Lemonade” opens with its artist under duress — not for marital or legal reasons, but historic: One of this visual album’s first images shows a chain stretched from a tall structure, and many moments pass before we’re allowed to look away. There’s plenty of kinky hair and cornrows to come – this album, like its first single “Formation,” worships being blackity black – but Beyoncé in 2016 wants us to see the iron she’s inherited from her ancestors. In 2013, Beyoncé’s first (official) visual album saw her smashing trophies, deconstructing every accomplishment. Those videos were all stunning, but cinematically distinct. She sipped Hennessey on a Miami beach with Jay Z for “Drunk in Love” and then rode Coney Island roller coasters for “XO.” We’d seen this scattered approach many times before: individual productions that didn’t exactly work together as a whole. 

READ MORE: Who Directed ‘Lemonade’? 7 Filmmakers Behind Beyoncé’s Visual Album

“Lemonade” isn’t like that; it’s a series of prayers, profound and profane, stitched together, with Beyoncé allowing us to see her seams. When one watches the album on Tidal, there are not any cuts or breaks between songs. The narrative experience is a requirement — you can’t skip forward or backward between songs or interludes. Title cards show words like “Intuition” and “Reformation” that don’t match the song names. The songs themselves are secondary; in some cases the listening album’s final mix isn’t entirely featured. With “Lemonade,” Beyoncé plays with the boundary of what a music video really is, and who it’s for.

The hour-long running time is part interpretation and part feature film. Despite the tradition of visual albums it calls to mind, this is really a coronation. It recalls Toni Morrison’s eulogy for James Baldwin, in which she quoted her longtime friend: “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” And so that’s what “Lemonade” does: its camera glides above and around so many placid black faces, of black women both famous (Quvenzhané Wallis, Serena Williams, Amandla Stenberg) and not. These moment-long profiles have the same reverberations of Kehinde Wiley’s portraits, elevating a struggle and considering it divine. 

The trailer for “Lemonade” teased this divinity. With its whispery voiceovers and dreamlike pace, it calls to mind Terrence Malick more than anything else in Beyoncé’s wheelhouse. But black faces are so rarely at the center of Malick’s oeuvre, and Beyoncé has a more immediate message to deliver. The video for “Formation” highlighted graffiti asking America to stop shooting us. “Lemonade” ups the challenge, asking America to see our every face: Beyoncé as scorned wife, yes, but also Beyoncé as a black woman engaging with the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, and Beyoncé as a product of her black mother’s prayers. And so the chains return.

Beyond the speculation surrounding Jay Z’s infidelity, “Lemonade” links its chains to generational trauma. Its Southern Gothic aesthetic casts black women in clothes and roles we were never permitted to assume — dressed in lace gowns and white gloves, allowed to scowl and weep and cackle and grin. When Jay Z makes an appearance, it’s deeply intimate but brief – he’s a supporting character in a larger exorcism of what was once the Master’s house. “The past and the future merge to meet us here,” Beyoncé says in the album’s first  monologue. Hurt has gathered us, but our crowns hint healing. It’s only after the fire and the prayer circles that the sweetness of the sugar that is “Lemonade” can be tasted. That holy place of black women convening – away from the world, without the husbands or side chicks or pain –  is a temporary retreat that recharges. Inevitably, we’ll assemble again – but black men need their crowns too, and a montage of black love make the interim easier.

Hunter Harris was one of three 2016 Roger Ebert Fellows at the Sundance Film Festival, and is served as the managing editor of Emerson’s student newspaper, the Berkeley Beacon. Her writing has appeared in The New York Observer, Boston Magazine, O, the Oprah Magazine, and The Week.

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