Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a masterpiece. The hour-long film, which she directed along with six co-directors including Kahlil Joseph (m.A.A.d.) and Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go), had a surprise debut on HBO this past Saturday, an electrifying and overwhelming event revealing a collision of pop art and high art, music video and experimental cinema. It’s a deeply personal and political film, dense with flowing allusion and lively imagery, smooth dancing and tough subjects, magical realism and serious contemplation, intimate poetry and provocative juxtapositions. Rich and sparkling eclecticism, it draws inspiration appreciatively from a strong tradition of black women artists – Nina Simone, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and more – to create the feeling of its auteur – one of the most famous pop stars of this century – expressing an evolution, a culmination, and a synthesis. She is possible because of those who came before, building on all that got her here.
She began as pop perfection in group Destiny’s Child and in an excellent solo career. With this film she’s delivered her richest and most emotionally and politically engaged work. She continues playing with and sharpening her craft while opening up and revealing innermost thoughts, fears, and hopes. For a celebrity whose privacy is so closely guarded and whose image is so rigorously managed, it feels like nothing less than a revelation. Filmed in a variety of styles, stocks, and aspect ratios, cutting between them with evocative metaphor and a beautifully intuitive coherent structure, it is continual astonishment. Told in poetry, by Somali-British writer Warsan Shire, and song, going track by track through Beyoncé’s terrifically diverse new album of the same name, we follow a woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her.
First she looks dazed in a field while wearing a black hoodie, next giving us a melancholy look from on a stage, then in a bathtub. Then she’s despondent, jumping off a building (echoes of Beyond the Lights?), the concrete turning into an ocean in which she tries to starve herself. Then she gets angry – strutting out of an austere building ahead of a flood, smashing a baseball bat into windows and, later, driving a monster truck over parked cars, the reggae-beat lyrics wondering, “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” She descends into her anger, as the film gathers bewitching horror movie portent, empty parking garages and eerie black-and-white covens coming before fire and long dark red hallways. Each section of the film is marked by chapter headings, guiding us from “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” to this lowest point: “Emptiness.”
But she doesn’t stop there. She gets better, grows stronger, reconnecting with her past and with others like her who have struggled with problems of their own. She moves to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” “Hope,” and a transcendent “Redemption,” as forceful dance music, gloomy blues, and jangly country with moody, mysterious imagery transforms into tender melancholy ballads accompanied by more pastoral sights, lakes and fields, sun-dappled solidarity and romance. (This is where her husband, Jay Z, is revealed slowly, in soft light, cuddling. Is this amnesty or are they playing parts?) She finds the power to forgive within herself, as an act of radical self-confident empowerment, and within her cultural context and in her womanhood, finding strength in numbers, a comfort in knowing that it is not her fate to suffer alone or in silence.
We see women throughout, arranged separately in striking tableau – in nature or in empty urban spaces, cheering her on or standing silent – but then increasingly together, until Beyoncé leads them towards a better tomorrow, striding across water, breaking bread together. We often return to the image of black women in angelic white clothing standing at Southern plantations or on beaches at sunset. (Daughters of the Dust is a clear reference point here.) Early on we hear the voice of Malcolm X saying, “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.” Later we’re shown mothers of recent victims of police brutality – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant – staring into the camera as they hold framed photographs of their sons. The personal is political, and Beyoncé is here presenting a personal, professional, and political metamorphosis, moving from profound anger at deep betrayal to a serene hope for the future.
Because Lemonade moves so poetically and intuitively through the stages of emotional healing and political engagement, its rapturous fusion enacts the very reckoning at its core. In the film, Beyoncé inhabits the persona of a woman who has been wronged, who is hurt, and who sees her pain on a historical continuum. There’s profound intersection between images playing off her stardom and off the history of black Americans, like when she stretches out on the Superdome’s field – location of her 2013 Superbowl Halftime Show, and the infamous “shelter of last resort” during Hurricane Katrina. The film turns on an acknowledgement of history and matriarchal lineage, summoning allusion for help upending racist and sexist ideology, allowing love to conquer all. She begins the film deeply wounded, but in exorcising her inner torment, weighing a legacy of ancestral pain, she can emerge whole, able to imagine a utopian vision. She surrounds herself with a community of black women, some celebrity (like Serena Williams, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya), others not. They stand strong together, support one another, and build a peaceable sisterhood.
Can we build a better future off a legacy of pain? When she intones, “Nothing real can be threatened,” having moved from righteous anger to transcendent forgiveness, launching into a soaring ballad of true love’s transformative absolution, turning the lemons of grief into striking lemonade, it feels like the truth. In the final moments she drops the artifice and cuts in home videos – of her wedding, her pregnancy, and candid dancing with daughter Blue Ivy. It’s a peek behind the curtain, and a stirring expression of selfhood, a perfect conclusion to this interior journey vibrantly and densely expressed. What a wondrous and exciting film, as deeply moving as it is deeply felt, alive with pop’s expressive possibilities and cinema’s irresistible power. It has a beat to dance to, a sensitive emotional narrative to feel, a potent poetic collage of sound and image to get lost in, and an overpowering catharsis as it all comes together.