Lemonade review: Beyoncé’s tribute to black female artists

In the iconic singer’s visual album, marital infidelity prompts a retreat to a poeticised world of women in the American South, where she rewrites traumas of black history and comes to an uneasy reconcilation with her betrayer.

Kelli Weston
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Beyoncé in Lemonade (2016)

Beyoncé in Lemonade (2016)

Beyoncé may yet be acclaimed as a master of image, but at the start of 2016 she had not blazed a different trail through cinema than most musicians-turned-actors before her. Taking roles as singers in Dreamgirls (2006) and Cadillac Records (2008) neither hindered nor especially helped her already global status as an iconic entertainer. No one could have predicted that she would be responsible for one of the most discussed cinematic events of the year.

In February, as America officially observed Black History Month, Beyoncé released Formation, the first single and video from her upcoming ‘visual album’, in the vein of its 2013 predecessor Beyoncé. Showing no signs of returning to the neutral persona she once fostered, Formation was expressly political. Set narratively if not geographically in post-Katrina New Orleans (it was actually filmed in Los Angeles), the video features barefoot children, the singer’s daughter Blue Ivy among them, flaunting their natural hair; Beyoncé herself appears in either box braids or a blonde ’fro. A hooded child dances before a wall of stunned policemen and sprawling graffiti spells out a message: “Stop shooting us.”

Lemonade (2016), the hour-long film that accompanied the album of the same name, largely delivers on the promise of Formation. What begins as a tale of marital infidelity and reconciliation reveals itself to be a pointedly political, aestheticised expression of black resistance. Beyoncé helms the film along with six other directors, including Mark Romanek and Kahlil Joseph, whose involvement invited comparisons to Terrence Malick. Joseph worked with Malick on To the Wonder (2012) and his influence is visible in Lemonade, with its lyrical monologues and lush scenery. However, Lemonade – which makes equal use of home video and documentary footage – takes most of its cues from the frequently overlooked canon of black women authors, literary and visual alike.

Confronted with her husband’s betrayal, Beyoncé retreats to verdant matriarchal havens, where she finds comfort, security, but above all empowerment. In fact, the film takes its title from the testimony of her husband Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie Smith, who declares that when life gave her lemons, she made lemonade. This legacy of survival, handed down from mother to daughter, emerges as one of the film’s prevailing themes, as the singer pays homage to the black female artists who came before her.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) receives perhaps the most explicit tribute, but scenes of little girls wandering the halls of an antebellum mansion and bouncing playfully on beds resemble Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997). One girl watches Beyoncé in the mirror, echoing photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table series, while the monochrome Sorry sequence recalls the glamour of Coreen Simpson’s fashion portraits. The singer references literary mothers as well, from Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker to Toni Morrison: in Lemonade Beyoncé becomes Janie, Shug, and Baby Suggs all in one – lover, aggressor, and leader of women.

Without question, the film affirms black femininity in all its forms. Beyoncé calls on Malcolm X, who famously attested: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.” But the haunting words of Somali poet Warsan Shire scaffold the film, with Beyoncé whispering: “Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving?”

Meanwhile, Beyoncé’s otherworldly hamlets of sisterliness are populated with a who’s who of today’s black girl luminaries – actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, Zendaya and tennis player Serena Williams – as well as Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden and Gwen Carr, holding photos of their slain sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Often dressed all in white, the stars of Lemonade stride the coastal marshland wearing high-necked, broad-shouldered lacy dresses, firmly moored in the American South and all its history.

Lemonade (2016)

Lemonade (2016)

Necessarily so, for the singer evokes the oldest image of black womanhood, the slave woman – cowed, violated, and powerless – and imbues her with a rarely afforded dignity. A gathering of women prepare food, and the scene is a familiar one, as are the sequences of young girls playing outside slave cabins, in parlours and draped across the Spanish moss-covered branches of oak trees. If the Plantation Era has traditionally been the symbol of white Southern pride, here it becomes the pinnacle of African-American female resilience, a place of safety and a community of grace, from which its heirs draw strength.

Geography is integral to the power of Lemonade. Beyoncé draws proudly on the rich musical legacy of the South: New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz; Clarksdale, home of the blues; and Atlanta, where trap music, the latest euphonious fruit of black expression, originated. The film was shot mainly in Louisiana, and in the song Daddy Lessons Beyoncé shouts out her Texas roots. Visually, the camera worships both the urban and pastoral spaces its characters occupy. By honouring a region historically coded in pain, Beyoncé and her collaborators rewrite that trauma into a treasured heritage.

A worthy ode to the black South and the dynamism of black women, on closer inspection Lemonade still falls into the dangerous trap of romanticising black anguish. The film concludes in a section entitled Redemption with the heartwarming Motown-esque ballad All Night, a celebration of love, familial and romantic, but lacking nuance. Beyoncé sings “My torturer became my remedy”, an abrupt contradiction of all the film’s themes of self-love. And yet in spite of its questionable turn, Lemonade remains a triumph, a victory for black women, black authorship, and black art.

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