Following the release of “Formation,” Beyoncé performed alongside Bruno Mars and Coldplay during the halftime show of Super Bowl 50. She engaged in a dance battle with Mars and showcased her recently released single, “Formation.” Both Beyoncé and her dancers were attired in costumes reminiscent of the Black Panther Party (BPP), a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization active in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The BPP’s core practice was to challenge police brutality and the performance stood as a prominent stance of activism during a time that police brutality was gaining attention on a national scale.
Following the performance, Beyoncé aired a commercial announcing her Formation World Tour. Although many fans were willing to secure tickets to the tour after the lone single, many were skeptical that the single would be the only new music featured on it. Many waited eagerly for the accompanying album, even though Beyoncé’s team made no indication there would be a new one. Nevertheless, Beyoncé quenched her fans’ thirst with a new album three months later.
On Saturday night, Beyoncé released her sixth studio album, “Lemonade,” on HBO. Following the visual album’s premiere, it was available on Tidal, the streaming service owned by Jay-Z where Kanye West’s most recent album was exclusively released. By Monday, Beyoncé’s album went on sale through various digital retailers, although streaming rights will remain with Tidal. The film combined striking visuals with poignant spoken word elements to convey themes of blackness, marital strife, and family.
With the release, the album received several positive reviews in addition to creating growing controversy. Erykah Badu, Anna Kendrick, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Sway Calloway, Uzo Aduba, and many others showed their solidarity and extreme praise for the album on social media. Negative criticism of the album came from Piers Morgan in the form of a Daily Mail op-ed piece, where he expressed his disapproval of Beyoncé’s attention to racial and political issues. Morgan received backlash from both fans and celebrities for his remarks, most notably coming from Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father.
Despite the criticism, the film itself incorporates sensational imagery, powerful motifs, and chilling prose to elevate the stature of the music. It takes on a biographical documentary style that branches into the surreal at several points. It was separated into 11 sections—Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope, and Redemption—signaled by title cards at the beginning of each sequence, with each featuring vivid, sensory imagery.
Huge inspiration for the imagery used in the film comes from Julie Dash, whose film, “Daughters of the Dust” focuses on a family of Gullah women living on the Sea Islands near the Carolinas and their migration to the American mainland in the early 1900s. The culture of Gullah women represents an underrepresented faction of African American culture in the media, and Beyoncé uses her position as an artist in the public eye to bring this film back to life.
The prose and poetry featured in “Lemonade” form the foundation of the visual album. Twenty-seven-year-old Somali-Brit Warsan Shire penned the spoken word, and her involvement in the album has propelled her work to an unparalleled level of fame, despite that within the spoken word community she has been regarded for quite some time as a powerful voice on black womanhood and the African diaspora.
Shire, however, remains humble and focused on her work amidst her heightened presence in the realm of popular culture. In such, her humility preserves the power of her words, which have been slightly altered in Beyoncé’s film. Words paired with the visual combine to create a melodrama that elevates the soundtrack of a jilted wife to a social commentary.
Beyoncé’s character in the film is portrayed as a scorned lover, and because of its biographical elements (the film features home videos of Beyoncé’s life), many have interpreted the character as a representation of Beyoncé herself. On the superficial level, “Lemonade” serves as an account of Jay Z’s alleged infidelity and the couple’s journey to reconciliation.
Like any famous couple, the Carters are no strangers to rumors of marital troubles, and throughout Beyoncé’s discography she broaches the subject of cheating, but many have found grounding in the accusations, especially with the release of elevator footage that showed an altercation between Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s sister, and Jay Z.
In “Sorry,” the third track on the album, Beyoncé refers to her husband’s mistress as “Becky with the good hair” and has stirred controversy about slut shaming and the responsibility of the man in a marital affair. Many fans have begun a witch hunt for the elusive “Becky with the good hair,” and public figures like Rachel Roy, Rachael Ray, and Rita Ora have been accused as “Becky” and even bullied and shamed.
Despite the growing controversy around it, the album stands as a wonderful exploration of black womanhood. Below is a guide to the film that decodes the imagery and songs present in each section.
Featuring: “Pray You Catch Me”
The film opens with Beyoncé onstage wearing all black and a head wrap singing the first song from the soundtrack. The section features shots of Beyoncé in an open field, outside of a decrepit building, and on the aforementioned stage. The ballad serves as a vocal transition into the first section of prose. A group of women are shown standing on a wooden stage different from the first one seen. Close ups of black women in antiquated southern attire are shown. The last frame reveals Beyoncé atop a city building before she jumps down head-first into the street.
This section features the first celebrity cameo, Quvenzhané Wallis. At the tender age of 12, Wallis has achieved greatness. In 2012, she starred in the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” becoming the youngest actress ever (the first person who was born in the 21st century) to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. At the time of filming, Wallis was only five years old, yet she wowed critics and audiences everywhere with her performance.
Wallis faced major criticism from a very vocal minority following the announcement of her casting as “Annie” in the 2014 remake. Some believed that the role of Little Orphan Annie was reserved for young white girls with red hair. Nevertheless, Wallis received a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the movie.
Featuring: “Hold Up”
As Beyoncé comes into contact with the street, it becomes an underwater realm where she encounters another version of herself. Shire’s poetry serves as the background to the images. Dressed in yellow chiffon, Beyoncé pushes open a set of doors, and the water rushes out from around her feet. Suddenly on a city street, she grabs a baseball bat from a kid and starts destroying car windows and fire hydrants all while smiling.
As a nod to the lyric in “Formation,” the bat is named Hot Sauce and offers a whole new interpretation of the line “I got hot sauce in my bag.” The scene progresses with more destruction and explosions to the tune of the bass drops in the song. The section ends with Beyoncé flattening parked cars with a monster truck while a lullaby plays in the background.
Featuring: “Don’t Hurt Yourself” feat. Jack White
Anger opens with stage dancers and a marching band making their way down a suburban street. The film cuts to eerie shots of a parking garage with fluorescent lighting. A lone drummer at a drum kit provides riffs to get the viewer ready for the featured song.
As the song begins, dancing is introduced to complement the music. An excerpt from a Malcolm X speech is interspersed between the two halves of the song, and shots of black women become the focal point during this interlude. The section ends with Beyoncé throwing her ring at the camera as Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Scene from Swan Lake” starts to play.
The section begins with women’s synchronized dancing on a bus. The women are painted in intricate designs by Nigerian-born, New York City-based artist Laolu Senbanjo. The artist’s Yoruba body paint comes from a longstanding African tradition that remains vital and influential today and embraces the importance of cosmology. The women continue to dance alongside Beyoncé throughout the section.
The next celebrity cameo is from Serena Williams. Williams dances in heels next to Beyoncé while the singer sits on an ornate chair. Williams’ movements embrace her sexuality and her body’s curves. As the song breaks down, the choreography transitions from fluid to isolation-oriented. Critics of Williams have said that she is too muscular and masculine to be regarded as female, but her appearance in this section rebukes this notion. Moreover, her standing as one of the best athletes of her time does not detract from her identity as a woman.
Featuring: “6 Inch” feat. The Weeknd
A shot of a dark, red hallway kicks off Emptiness. The film transitions to a shot of Beyoncé singing in a car. She is also shown dancing on a small stage reminiscent of the one seen in the first section. Shots of nightlife are spliced in between clips of Beyoncé’s performance. The whole section is tinted red, with some shades of purple.
Featuring: “Daddy Lessons”
The section opens with shots of the New Orleans bayou and a little girl exploring a Southern plantation home. The soundtrack veers into the genre of country and becomes lighthearted, in contrast to the visual in the previous section of Beyoncé standing outside a burning house.
The film then takes an entirely different turn and introduces a young black male from New Orleans, showing videos of his life to highlight the distinctness of New Orleans-style music. Videos of brass blaring preface the song, which Beyoncé performs sitting in a chair behind a guitarist.
During the song, aspects of New Orleans life are shown, ranging from violence, love, domesticity, death, and nature. Matthew Knowles appears with Beyoncé and her daughter, Blue Ivy.
Featuring: “Love Drought”
Beyoncé lays on the ground of a football stadium with tears running down her cheeks. The film transitions to the singer leading a line of ladies into the water. No dancing occurs during these scenes, but the production design incorporates impressive imagery of its own. Beyoncé sits in a chair, but the chair is on its back on the ground, and she is suddenly surrounded by flowers.
The section opens with an upside-down shot of two women lounging on the beach as Beyoncé washes up on the shore. It also showcases intimate moments between Jay Z and Beyoncé, who sings and plays the keyboard as accompaniment.
Featuring: “Forward” feat. James Blake
Several women gather in the period-style clothing for a photograph. The photographer is actress Amandla Stenberg, while YouTube stars Halle & Chloe Bailey appear in the center of the group of women. Amandla Stenberg rose to fame as a result of her role in “The Hunger Games” as Rue. Since the film’s release, Stenberg has spoken out about inequality in the movie industry as well as her gender and sexuality. She plans to pursue her dream of becoming a film director after she graduates New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts.
Chloe and Halle Bailey are known as Beyoncé’s prodigies, having won recognition through their cover of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” two years ago. The twins were recently signed to Beyoncé’s record label and released their first single, “Drop,” a few weeks ago.
The second half of the section is composed of shots of different women holding pictures of their fathers or sons. Gwendolyn Carr, Sybrina Fulton, and Lesley McSpadden—the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, respectively—are highlighted.
Model Winnie Harlow and dancer Michaela DePrince show pictures of their fathers as well. Harlow rose to prominence following her appearance on the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.” DePrince, meanwhile, pursued a professional career in ballet despite encountering instances of racism and was featured in the 2011 documentary “First Position.”
Both of these women are extremely inspirational because they share a highly visible skin disease: vitiligo, which alters the pigmentation of portions of the skin. Harlow in particular has taken the fashion industry by storm and has become a role model for young people with the condition.
Featuring: “Freedom” feat. Kendrick Lamar
DePrince performs ballet on the stage, while shots of Harlow modeling for the camera are interspersed between shots of Beyoncé singing on the stage seen in previous sections. The guests from earlier scenes come together in this section and are seen sitting on huge tree branches or standing in front of a tree.
Zendaya Coleman rounds out the celebrity cameos. Zendaya is a Disney Channel actress and R&B singer who advocates for racial equality and women’s rights. Because of the lack of diversity in media, Zendaya says she feels an obligation to remain on the Disney Channel despite her age in order to provide younger people with representation.
Featuring: “All Night”
The last section includes various shots of women, some candid, others stylized. In video footage from her 90th birthday party, Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie, says, “I’ve had my ups and downs. I was given lemons, but I made lemonade.” Her quote likely inspired the title of the album.
The film switches into color after three sections in a row in black and white. This sequence consists of videos of happy couples, including Jay Z and Beyoncé. The viewer is led to assume that reconciliation has been achieved by all parties, even Beyoncé’s character of the scorned lover. After the credits roll, the music video for “Formation” plays and thus concludes the film.
Regardless of whether the film is proven to be autobiographical or pure fiction on Beyoncé’s part, no one can deny that its powerful imagery and prose combine to form a masterpiece. This beautiful body of work has changed the game for album releases as well as challenging the public to engage in controversial issues. While Piers Morgan may not like Beyoncé’s activism, the singer has shown that her power stems for her identity as a black woman as much as from her vocal prowess.