While this year’s Coachella attempted to lure attention with the spectacle of Ariana Grande and the sheer audacity of Kanye West, a good deal of buzz was about last year’s headliner, thanks to a new Netflix documentary about her performance. Beyoncé Knowles was the first Black woman ever to top the music festival’s lineup. The best concert in recent memory, it featured over 200 performers costumed in homage to historically Black colleges and universities. Homecoming, the film of “Beychella” that was produced, written, and directed by the superstar, is both a survey and a celebration of Black music.
The show is already familiar to many. After all, it currently stands as the most watched live-streamed event ever. It opens with Beyoncé, dressed as Queen Nefertiti, strutting down a catwalk in front of the main stage, which features a large pyramid of platforms. A marching band, dancers, background vocalists, and a string orchestra stand on the pyramid, playing mixes of more than two dozen of the singer’s hits. From the deep cuts in the set list to the dazzlingly complicated choreography, each note and step is hit with militaristic precision and flair. Homecoming recontextualizes this already-legendary event.
The documentary presents the performance in full, spliced together with behind-the-scenes footage and ruminations on motherhood, scholarship, and the creative process. Through these vignettes, Beyoncé invites us to consider the show not as a standalone event, but as the result of months of collaborative labor and little human moments. These interstitials don’t have much room to breathe in between all the footage of the show, but that doesn’t make them superficial details. They embody a form of communal storytelling that ties into larger questions of Blackness.
With Homecoming, Beyoncé is synthesizing Black cultural and intellectual forms. This is a project that began with her deeply personal visual album Lemonade in 2016, and she greatly expands upon its ideas here. The film establishes this foundation early on with a quote from Toni Morrison: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.” This leads into the formation of its emotional core: a recital of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The dancers arch their backs, spread their arms, and belt “Ah” into the void, punctuating each verse with stomps and shouts. The lighting in this sequence is soft and pink, evoking the dawn. It conjures an idealized vision of a place where Black people can just be, untroubled by the pain of history and celebrated for their achievements. It imagines a future without double consciousness, where they don’t have to look at themselves through both their own eyes and the eyes of whiteness.
Beyoncé says as much in voiceover: “As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel underestimated. I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history … we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized.”
The space she creates is one made of many stories that bleed into one another. The set list features drumlines and spirituals and afrobeat and crunk and classical and dance hall and screw and big band music. The documentary quotes the likes of Audre Lorde, Nina Simone, W.E.B. Du Bois, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cornel West, Marian Wright Edelman, and Maya Angelou. Through its focus on Beyoncé and her collaborators, both on stage and off, the film collapses this history into theirs. Thus are they affirmed by their heritage and seen, both by their peers and the viewer.
Intellectually, I know that Beyoncé leverages her image as a product for her own gain, and that Homecoming represents a vision of the queen which she herself has heavily mediated. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her as an evangelist of sorts. Too many people still treat African American culture with willful amnesia or purposeful neglect. This kind of affirmation and condensed schooling is just what we need to cut through the nonsense.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé is currently streaming on Netflix.
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