Everybody seems to be talking about lemonade. My friend who is an incredible badass woman of colour sent me a copy of Beyonce’s Album / Short film as it came up in conversation and I had mentioned how much I wanted to watch it. She sent it to me on the condition that I let her know what I made of it IN FULL after I’d finished watching it. With her encouragement, I’ve tidied up the email that I sent to her in response to form this blog post. I’ve also included some of the points that she then made in response because – as usual – they are bloody good. Occasionally I’ve quoted her too, because her words are brilliant and probably much better than mine.
From what I had already read about the film before I had even watched it, I was pretty aware that – just for a change – this film wasn’t made primarily for the viewing pleasure of white men such as myself. This kind of made me like it before I had even seen it, but it also made me curious as to what I might take away from it. The short answer is a lot.
I’m probably more cynical than is good for me. I find it difficult to approach anything that has been on the receiving end of considerable popular acclaim without already having readied myself to start picking holes in it. In this instance however, I’ve got to admit that Lemonade blew me away. The overwhelming impression that I took away from the whole piece is its depiction of black women as being strong, beautiful and in solidarity with one another. The film does not just include a lot of ‘sexy’ dancers, but depicts real women of different ages, shapes and sizes in a way that highlights their dignity strength, courage and determination. This struck me so powerfully because it made me realise how tragically rare this kind of a portrayal of black women is in the popular culture (at least the popular culture I’ve been exposed to anyway.)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that can be described as entertainment that depicts black women in such a powerful, stylish and coherently positive way, and on their own terms rather than in relation to male lust. I love the fact that there are almost no men in the piece whatsoever. I love the fact that beyond the exploration of Beyonce’s relationship with the almost invisible Jay-Z, the cast of women who fill the piece are in the main not being portrayed in relation to men, but to each other. When men do appear – for example via the images of black men who have been shot by American police officers – it serves to reinforce the message that, just as it is Beyonce herself who, having been left behind by her husbands infidelity, is undertaking the emotional labour required to heal, understand and find a way forwards, so too – as my friend points out – are black women themselves, as a result of the incarceration and murder of their men by the American state, left to perform the emotional and political labour necessary for change, who will have to lead the struggle for justice against the systemic racism endemic in the United States.
A lot of people seem to have got a bit fixated on the whole piece basically being about Jay-Z having cheated on Beyonce and on speculating who ‘Becky with the good hair’ might be. If he did cheat on Beyonce then it would appear that he is something of a fool as she is clearly about 500 millions times more interesting, talented and self-aware than him. Talk of his possible infidelity makes me think about the infamous misogyny of Kanye West and his most recent album The life of Pablo, in which a 38 year old married father of two labels Taylor Swift a ‘Bitch’ that might still have sex with him and treats virtually every woman in the album as a sex object. It reads very much like a grown man who cannot deal with the fact that however rich and famous he might be he can’t go around sleeping with whoever he wants anymore. It is interesting to contrast the rantings of a male artist bemoaning his inability to commit infidelity with the empowering response of a female artist trying to come to terms with her own husbands infidelity.
If we suppose that it is Jay-Z’s infidelity that is the initial spark that led to the creation of Lemonade, then it would also appear that by the end of the piece Beyonce has forgiven him. Indeed on her new tour, formation, it appears that she has spoken very publicly about how much she loves her husband. Some people might be critical of the brand of feminism being portrayed by Beyonce, arguing that she should walk away from a man who has treated her in this way, but I for one don’t have a problem with this. The reality is that life is sometimes fucking messy. She has a daughter with this man for one thing. It’s not always as simple as saying; somebody has treated you wrong and the only right thing to do is to walk away. As my friend pointed out to me, there is clearly a point in the film where Beyonce appears to consider walking away, that in this case she realises that there is a love worth fighting for, but that in others cases there may not be.
“And thats important because I think feminism is about choice as well as equality, and about women choosing their paths. But paths of transformation that can give life. In other words, this should not to be interpreted as forgive your cheating ass boyfriend because Bey did.”
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness a lot. Rather than being a sign of weakness, I truly believe that it can be an act of empowerment and an expression of strength – as opposed to a weak act of appeasement that enables somebody who is treating you badly to continue to do so without reproach. Beyonce may not be saying that you have to forgive, but she does suggest that it can be a valid option. After all, people make mistakes. We all live within a deeply oppressive system of capitalist patriarchy. This is a system that encourages people to do some really fucking shit things, that lets them get away with them again and again, and that even rewards them for doing so. This is not to say that individuals do not usually have at least some degree of choice, or that they should not take responsibility for their own actions, but I’m getting so very tired of the labelling of some people as toxic by others who seem to think they are perfect. The pool of perfect people is going to end up being pretty fucking small because whether we want to admit it or not, we all transgress from time to time. What happens to all of the people we dump on the trash-heap for failing to be unaffected by the piece of shit system that we live within?
It is painfully difficult to accept our own ability, given the right (or rather, wrong, circumstances) to hurt others in much the same way that we have been hurt so painfully ourselves. In fact you could argue that the more we have been hurt, the easier it can become for us to transfer that pain to those around us. It is much easier to deny this potential lurking within ourselves than to come to terms with the guilt that accompanies accepting that we have hurt and will, whether intentionally or not, hurt other people in our lives again. Perhaps it is our inability to accept the darker aspects of ourselves that make us so keen to draw a clear division between us and those who transgress against us whether they do so in reality or as the symbolic ‘other’ to be feared and reviled. But when we do this, when we label people as toxic, shun them and seek to mark them as being bad, so very radically or fundamentally different to ourselves, what hope do we give for their transformation into the kind of people we should all want to be?
In Lemonade you feel like Beyonce’s forgiveness is coming on her own terms. She isn’t begging him to come back to her. Although she acknowledges the hurt that he has caused her she is able to move beyond that and to suggest that in his actions he is also hurting himself. He is depicted as being genuinely sorry, humbled, almost childlike… to continue the metaphor of the title, he is made to look like a massive lemon basically, but at the same time Beyonce seems to acknowledge that although she does not have to forgive him, although his behaviour is heartbreaking and totally unacceptable, it is also at least partly a consequence of something much larger than either of them.
I do wonder about the conversations between the two of them before this was released. Did he know what it was about? Surely he must have done. I’ve heard people say that they concocted the whole thing together, playing on the infidelity rumours as a way of whipping up a media frenzy. I’m wary of this idea though, it places Jay-Z back into the middle of things, he becomes a genius who is cunningly exploiting his own possible infidelity to enrich himself and gain publicity for his wife. Maybe i’m being Naive in this instance but I don’t want to buy it. I like to think that if he did do anything with ‘Becky with the good hair’ (and the first half of the piece is so powerful, it is hard not to feel like Beyonce has been deeply and personally hurt by the man she loves) that one of the conditions of her forgiveness was to say ‘I’m going to heal from this in the best way I can and that means I need to make music about it and you are just going to have to suck it up while I tell the whole world about it!’
For me, what is far more important than whether there was infidelity or what role Jay-Z played in the whole thing is the overall statement of the piece. The use of Warsan Shire’s wonderful poetry (teaching my mother how to give birth is just wonderful, go read it if you haven’t already – a little more about it here) and the use of the Malcolm X quote about black women being the most neglected people in America… this does not feel like it is just about a troubled relationship. For me, it feels like it is about the oppression of black people in America (shout out to New Orleans included) but even more importantly than that, it feels most of all that it is about the mistreatment of black women and by black men too. It is also about the women who are left behind when black men are murdered by the state and the strength of these women in the face of so much oppression. If this isn’t addressing issues of intersectionality then I don’t know what is, and I love Beyonce for it. All the stuff about the infidelity and who Becky might be has just succeeded in getting so many peoples attention and exposing them to this far, far bigger and more important message.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my father’s relationship with his grandfather and father, how this has shaped his relationship with me, and how that in turn has shaped who I am as a man. I love the fact that Beyonce addresses this idea of inter-generational transference. She acknowledges how the strength and wisdom of one generation of women can be passed down onto the next (what is this whole masterpiece if not a homage to Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie who features in the film and states that she was given lemons and made lemonade?) So too does Beyonce reflect on the way in which the damaging behaviour of one generation of men – that is in itself a symptom of patriarchy, because yes patriarchy hurts men too – can be (and is often) passed on to the next, from father to son. This is in no way an attempt to justify men behaving in oppressive and misogynist ways towards women, but rather feels like a genuine acknowledgement of not only how deeply rooted a lot of male oppression is, but also how much strength and wisdom women have to draw upon in their struggles against it.
Beyonce is never going to be my favourite artist on purely musical terms but even on those relatively unimportant grounds I enjoyed it. There are some wonderful lines… like ‘if we are going to heal, let it be glorious.’ Visually it is a sumptuous celebration of black womanhood in all of its guises. I love the way she co-opts the antebellum clothing of the slave owning white women of the deep south by putting beautiful strong black women into those dresses. If that isn’t a visual statement of defiance, of overthrowing the old order and making it clear that things are changing, are going to change, then I don’t know what is. The image of her slowly sinking into the flood-waters on the roof of the police car, the fact that the ‘hot sauce in her bag’ is actually a baseball bat! I actually cheered as she smashes up the super macho muscle cars before crushing the hell out of them in her monster truck! I loved it basically… people might have issues with her version of feminism. Great, let them. I think its wonderful. I’m naturally cynical but this feels important and uplifting and hopeful and like a call to arms, a call for solidarity, a triumphant celebration of the strength and resistance and courage of Black women.
If Beyonce cheated on Jay-Z what kind of an album do you think he would put out? Would it be uplifting and hopeful, suggesting that ‘we can start again?’ Would he seek to explore the possible reasons for her transgression in the context of race and gender and seek to acknowledge his own potential role in this as a black man? Would he use this exploration to encourage collective resistance against the broader oppression experienced by the black community as a whole and by black women in particular? Would he forgive her? Even suggesting these things sadly feels more than slightly ridiculous. I might be lacking in imagination but it was hard for me to imagine a film like this being made by anybody other than a woman of colour.
As my friend points out in her response “This is why black women are the ones that are going to have to give birth to the new order.”