Two things happened to me last week, happened before I watched Beyoncé’s Homecoming on Netflix (available as of April 17), and informed how I processed the staggeringly in-depth concert film. Those things were:
• The first thing: Reading news coverage of the tensions between Howard University students and Washington, D.C., residents who have been visiting the campus and using the legendary Yard as a place to have picnics, walk their dogs, and basically do things that people in cities do in public spaces—but maybe shouldn’t be doing on the campus of a historically black college and university (HBCU) that isn’t a plaything for the affluent white residents who are flooding into D.C. because of increased gentrification. What did one white man say when he was interviewed about the story by FOX 5 reporter Tisha Lewis? “If they don’t want to be within D.C., then move the campus.” MOVE THE CAMPUS THAT WAS BUILT IN 1867! The audacity.
• The second thing: That a coworker (white, female, older) told me that my skin “isn’t even that dark” and that I “could be Italian or something” instead of the first-generation Iranian-American that I am. What’s the context of this story? Does it matter? I don’t think it matters. But she really did not think she said anything wrong in judging the color of my skin and determining that I shouldn’t feel othered in any situation because I’m not some magical threshold of darkness. Phew! This happened a week ago and I’m still processing it, and by “processing it” I mean resenting that I didn’t respond in a way I’m proud of. Instead, I went with a standard “I don’t want to talk about this,” because I am very bad at confrontation, and I’m going to be angry with myself about this for a while.
So that is the mindset I took into Homecoming: a frustration with a simultaneous sense of societal and personal carelessness. Why is it so difficult for people to acknowledge difference instead of disregarding it? Why are we still doing this shit in 2019? I do not at all want to make it seem like I understand the experience of being black in America—I don’t, I can’t, and it’s not my place to pretend to. But both of these experiences, reading the DCist story and having my skin color assessed, had a common throughline that so many of us have experienced our whole lives: this idea that to be an other is to be in constant defense, a guard against those who will attempt to judge you and dismiss you, who will push your safety and your security aside. And will consider what you possess to be theirs, and what you demonstrate to require their approval or their judgment. I was just so goddamn tired of feeling this way, and then I watched Homecoming.
Is Beyoncé’s concert film, which captures the two performances she gave as Coachella’s first black female headliner in 2018, the greatest example of its genre? I don’t know if I can make that declaration. What I am comfortable as hell saying is that this is the most crystal-clear example of self-mythologization I’ve ever seen, a thoroughly declarative autobiographical work, the most precise distillation of Beyoncé’s varying ideas about blackness, feminism, identity, fame, and capital. Beyoncé doesn’t talk to reporters, journalists, or writers anymore, and so Homecoming stands on its own, a creation that is entirely hers, that isn’t filtered through anyone else. What results is an immense amount of work, the details of which are so unbelievable that I had to keep pausing this thing to really process it all.
Beyoncé narrates Homecoming as if she’s speaking from on top a mountain, her voice sounding like it’s coming from one end of a rotary landline telephone or a crackly megaphone, as if what she’s saying is so precious that if you deviate attention for a moment you’ll lose it—a radio signal guiding you through a storm. It’s an additional component of the old-timey aesthetic that is peppered throughout Homecoming (black and white imagery, what seems like Super-8 film stock), like this is all archival footage, found buried in the sand after the apocalypse takes hold. “Remember Beyoncé?” The documentary seems to say. “Revel in her majesty!”
And holy shit, it’s almost impossible not to. This is all, frankly, mind-boggling. Homecoming begins with Beyoncé’s initial idea to make the Coachella performance an extension and exploration of her blackness, a rejection of the “flower crown” aesthetic that has permeated the California festival. Instead, we hear her explain that her goal was to center the HBCU homecoming experience, the joy and the swag and the glee and the talent—the bands, the dancers, the baton twirlers, the drummers, the everything. The stage swelled in size. The people onstage numbered into the dozens, then the hundreds. And all throughout you see Beyoncé dictating what she wants while also encouraging everyone involved, being clear in her demands while also loving in her guidance. Sometimes husband Jay-Z pops up beside her, but most of the time he’s watching their daughter Blue, who is watching her mother. After a particularly lengthy speech in which Beyoncé describes various areas of improvement for the show, it’s revealed it’s their anniversary, and they’re finally going to go celebrate. Beyoncé leads the way, and Jay-Z bows out with a simple “OK, guys!”—supportive, but not stepping on toes. Homecoming is all Beyoncé, and she is incredibly intentional in both showing and telling that: “I studied my history, I studied my past, and I put every mistake, all of my triumphs of my 22-year career, into my two-hour Homecoming performance.”
And is the performance unforgettable? You’re damn right it is. I don’t consider myself a Beyoncé superfan, but while watching the special, you’ll remember how dominant of a force she’s been for more than 20 years, how many singles you still have rattling around your head, how inescapable songs like “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love” and “Drunk In Love” and “Formation” and “Run the World (Girls”) have been. Beyoncé talks about bringing her culture to Coachella, but she is the culture, and she has surrounded herself with people who are masters. Costumers, choreographers, dancers, musicians, all committed to the vision of this piece, all excited to collaborate and create. You’ll tell the two nights of performances apart only by their differently colored outfits—one night pink, one night yellow—because otherwise everything is so tight, so identical. Editors Alexander Hammer (who handled the live performance portions of the film) and Andrew Morrow, Nia Imani, and Julian Klincewicz (of the documentary side) create a ridiculously cohesive final cut that gives us every angle, all the angles, to truly understand all the facets of these two nights. We see from the top of the pyramid down, we go out onto various stages, we go up in the sky while Beyoncé is elevated above the crowd, we track every single dance move, we watch as she seems to be singing directly into the many, many cameras and directly to us. I really have no idea how they pulled this off. I’ve watched Homecoming twice, and I still can’t wrap my mind around it.
And yea, of course, inherently this is all an advertisement for Beyoncé herself. She only wears her own fitness line, Ivy Park, throughout rehearsals. Most of the songs featured in the Coachella performances are exclusively available through Tidal, the streaming service she created with Jay-Z. She made Lemonade available to other platforms earlier this week because of the album’s three-year anniversary, but otherwise, her work is locked up, only accessible by payment. In a lot of ways, honestly, Beyoncé reminds me of Disney—the grip she has on the musical world is so tight, and she’s done so much to transform it, and she is undoubtedly the entertainer of our time. You can’t watch Homecoming and not think that. But, again similar to Disney, Beyoncé’s status now as one of the greatest musicians ever is tied to her capital. Her songs dictate revenge against an oppressive system being the amass of wealth, the collection of “your paper.” If Beyoncé could do it, could rise from Houston to the largest stages in the world, then you can do it—but only if you’re good enough. That’s not to say that Beyoncé isn’t educating, isn’t elevating, isn’t highlighting elements of the black experience that make the mainstream uncomfortable (remember all the white-panic backlash to her Black Panthers-referencing halftime show at Super Bowl 50 in 2016?). But “$1 billion in an elevator,” and this idea that the only way to control the oppressor is to beat them at their own capitalist game, is an element of her politics that is ultimately self-serving.
These dualities are part of the mythmaking, of course, and Homecoming is exactly that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime work, not only because I doubt we’re ever going to see something like this again but because Beyoncé herself acknowledges that she’s never pushed herself this hard and doesn’t think she can—doesn’t want to—recreate it. But what that also means is that Homecoming is a piece of art that is not only of this time, but primed to withstand it. Its celebration of HBCUs is resonant now because of the Howard University bullshit, but the joyous declaration of blackness, of cultural specificity, of taking back the label of “other” and spinning it into something beautiful and bold is a fight that has been going on for a long time, and that will continue for decades past this point, too. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” the film quotes famed children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman saying at HBCU Spelman College at 1959, and that’s exactly the lingering message Homecoming imparts: You are worthy. You are strong. You are powerful. You can bring the motherfucking house down. And no one has any right to tell you different.