On 23 April Beyoncé was to screen a 65-minute something on HBO with no announcement of what it would be. That something was Lemonade: 12 new tracks that cycle through trap, blues rock, country and gospel, with accompanying visuals. Technically, it is a visual album (her second, and the follow-up to 2013’s Beyoncé), though “visual album” is hardly an adequate description. Lemonade is a film – the most exciting film of 2016 so far.
Though it is credited with seven different directors, Lemonade is one story – the seemingly autobiographical story of a woman wronged by the man she loves the most. We see her story progress chronologically and cinematically, as we follow her through stages of this betrayal – from intuition and anger to forgiveness and beyond. In a climate of seemingly endless remakes and sequels, an original film as pointedly personal and raw as this one feels like a small miracle.
Those keen to strip Beyoncé of her creative agency will quickly point out the film’s six other directors (Jonas Åkerlund, Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek and Todd Tourso). But film – more so than any other medium – is a deeply collaborative art. And, in any case, Lemonade is decidedly transparent about its sources of inspiration – from the archive footage of Malcom X in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (“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”) to home videos of her father Mathew Knowles in “Daddy Lessons”.
Lemonade / Eve’s Bayou
“Your mother is a woman and women like her cannot be contained,” whispers Beyoncé’s voiceover in a spoken word interlude (riffing on Warsan Shire’s “how to wear your mother’s lipstick”). Many have been quick to compare Lemonade’s hushed voiceover and emphasis on nature to the work of arthouse director Terrence Malick. A more apt comparison, however, might be to that of Kasi Lemmons, who directed the 1997 film Eve’s Bayou, a swampy melodrama that shares Lemonade’s interest in the ephemeral, from voodoo to tribalism to witchcraft. Lemonade’s post-Katrina imagery, Southern Gothic sentiment and audio-visual palette of black spiritualism are specific – and specifically black.
The key visual reference in Lemonade is Julie Dash’s 1992 film Daughters of the Dust, credited as the first full-length feature film by an African-American woman to receive a theatrical release in the United States. In “Love Drought”, Beyoncé lies atop a funeral pyre; later, she wades into swampy waters, holding hands with a congregation of women all in white. Throughout Lemonade, young black women dressed in frilly high-necked dresses perch atop the branches of Spanish Moss. In fact, this is not the first time Beyoncé has referenced Dash’s work; in the video for “Mine”, interpretive dancers with their heads and bodies swathed in neutral-coloured gauze are set against a black backdrop, recalling her 1975 short film “Four Women”.
Lemonade / Daughters of the Dust
The slow tracking shots and bloody red lighting in “Six Inch” recall The Shining; “Don’t Hurt Yourself”’s underground car park conjures Drive; “Hold Up”’s impromptu block party is a nod to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. And as for the coven of beautiful black women (including Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg and the French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi) bearing baskets of fruit in “All Night” – they could be straight out of the witchy women’s commune in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.
Lemonade / The Shining
What’s important here is not just the wealth of cinematic reference points Beyoncé draws on, but the way she reframes them by centring blackness. Whether she’s drawing attention to cultural figures like the actress Quvenzhané Wallis, the tennis player Serena Williams, and the mothers of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner – black men murdered by police brutality, or juxtaposing the visceral poetry of British-Somali refugee Warsan Shire against an image of herself as an underwater Miss Havisham, Beyoncé weaves blackness into the fabric of the film.
Perhaps it’s the immediacy that music lauds over cinema, but I’ve often believed that pop stars are better at eliciting emotion than their fellow actors (think Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, Cher in Moonstruck, and Britney in the music video for “Everytime”), but Beyoncé’s forays into the world of film have felt flat. There’s something too earnest – embarrassing, even, about watching her channel other artists in films like Cadillac Records or Dreamgirls. But put her behind the camera, and she transforms.
“Sandcastles” opens on an image of a gold-veined clay bowl. Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of golden repair, the seams of gold making broken pottery all the more beautiful for being broken. That Lemonade contains many a barbed jab at Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity works in its favour; the lemonade in question is all the more juicy for the sour truths about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s marriage we’re invited to squeeze and interpolate. But whether it’s a paean to real relationships or not: there’s no doubt that Beyoncé has birthed something beautiful in its own right.