On the anniversary of ‘Lemonade’ this review has been reposted from The Rumpus:
At first glance, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a stunning visual album that details a betrayed woman’s path to healing and forgiveness after her husband’s serial cheating.
But if you peel back the skin—as Beyoncé eerily offers to do to her husband’s mistress, “Becky with the good hair,” as a gesture of her devotion to him—there is so much more meat and bone to Lemonade than just a woman scorned.
The album, which must be watched as well as heard, is Beyoncé’s awakening. Her husband’s betrayal is the catalyst that allows her to reject and unlearn the patriarchal, Eurocentric ideas of love and religion that she’s been socialized to embody and defend, at her peril: husband as god; woman as less-than; patriarchal Christianity as Gospel; Africanness as heathen. Through her decolonization journey, she rejects her husband as a god and finds God, instead, in every part of her West African, Southern American, Creole, Negro-nostriled, Black woman self.
With the help of her ancestors and a community of Black women and girls, she heals from the impact of systemic oppression and helps others heal, setting up a formation for decolonized love that strengthens her marriage and empowers her community against subjugation.
Set in New Orleans, the film opens with the heart-breaking ballad, “Pray You Catch Me,” as Beyoncé is dressed in a black hoodie, seemingly bare-faced, stalking her man in tall grass as nearby ruins echo the state of her marriage.
“I tried to make a home out of you,” she says, reciting the words of the brilliant twenty-eight-year-old Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. “But doors lead to trap doors.”
Cisgender, heterosexual women are socialized to wrap up their identities, hopes, dreams, and their very worth deep inside of a man, whether it be a father, husband, or boyfriend. Women are taught that if we submit to these men, we’ll be protected. We’ll be respected. We’ll be loved. But what happens to a woman’s sense of worth, her self-esteem, when the man who holds everything in his hands still deems her unworthy of faithfulness, commitment and unconditional love? Beyoncé is learning that “stairways,” the patriarchy’s promise of ascension into worthiness, if only women follow the rules, “lead to nothing.”
Sisters, ancestors, dressed in white, beckon her to walk through a tunnel and leave the pain behind. She leaves those fields and appears on the roof of a tall building, overlooking a city. With tears in her eyes, palms raised towards heaven, she jumps off, not to her death, but into new life.
Instead of hitting the concrete, she plunges into water—her first baptism. To save herself from drowning, she removes the clothes she wore while stalking her husband; she’s done with that part of her life.
While still breathing underwater, Beyoncé watches herself inside her flooded home, sleeping alone in a bed, waiting up for a man who isn’t coming. “I plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book,” she recites Shire’s words again, commenting on how she’s used a patriarchal understanding of Christianity to shrink herself into an acceptable, respectable woman deserving of her man’s continued affections—to no avail.
Beyoncé is learning that patriarchal love is a sham and her respectability, her beauty, her title as wife and mother, her pop star status will not prevent her love from betraying her.
Now, she’s angry.
Finding God in Woman
She emerges from her drowned home wearing a bright yellow dress, perfectly dry, and seeking revenge. Beyoncé embodies the Yoruba goddess Oshun, the deity of love and sweet water. But she is anything but sweet.
As she sings her next song, “Hold Up,” we discover that the “hot sauce in her bag” from her the hit song she performed at the Super Bowl in February, “Formation,” is a baseball bat, which she uses to destroy everything in her path, as Black women in the background look on delighted.
“Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you,” she warns on the Caribbean-infused track.
“What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?” she asks, while smiling and even laughing through the destruction she’s causing. These words, “jealous” and “crazy,” are often used to shame women out of having human reactions to betrayal by the men in their lives; our anger is invalidated when men wield these words against us.
But as Beyoncé breaks from a colonial understanding of how women are supposed to act and be in order to “deserve” love and faithfulness from a man, she returns to the forbidden faith of her ancestors, reveling in the West African spirituality that got her ancestors through.
Becoming Oshun allows Beyoncé to deconstruct her image of her husband as a god and start to see God in herself. She channels the strength of Oshun to say, “What’s worse, being walked all over lately… I’d rather be crazy.” Call me what you will, she says, but you will not take advantage of me anymore.
The reggae-funk-rock anthem, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” is an extension of this warning, as an empowered and still angry Bey holds her husband’s feet to the fire.
“When you hurt me, you hurt yourself. Try not to hurt yourself,” she taunts her husband in a parking garage, hair cornrowed, dressed in a sports bra, leggings, and a fur coat, ready to box.
Surrounded by a posse of Black women, intertwined with images of everyday Black women from New Orleans, Beyoncé makes clear that this album goes beyond her. It’s an ode to Black women, as the words of Malcolm X blare over the silenced beat: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman,” he says. “The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” X says, to lukewarm applause (proving his point!).
Black women never even had the façade of ascension, X makes clear. We’ve never been able to negotiate our safety based on how respectable we act or dress. But the jig is up.
Bey screams to her husband, to Black men, to all men, as a reminder for how they treat Black women: “When you love me, you love yourself. Love God herself.” She continues her decolonization of love and religion by acknowledging God not only in what is female, but in what is Black and female (though she flashes a placard for the part of her crazed Bey-hive that calls her “Beysus”: “God Is God and I Am Not,” in case anyone got it twisted).
“If you try this shit again, you gon lose your wife,” she promises as she snatches off her wedding rings and throws them dead into the camera.
“What are you going to say at my funeral? ‘Rest in peace my love, who I took for granted,’” she indicts her husband. “Her heaven will be a love without betrayal. Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks,” she promises.
Healing through Black Sisterhood
She’s moved beyond anger to apathy on the trap banger, “Sorry.” Still embracing West African spirituality, Beyoncé employs Nigerian visual artist Laolu Senbanjo to paint the faces of her and her Black woman posse in Yoruba’s Sacred Art of the Ori. Senbanjo tells OkayAfrica that the body art, particularly on the face, connects the spirit of the wearer to music or a mood. Her mood is upbeat. She’s dancing. She’s having fun with her sisters. She’s over him. “Middle fingers up, tell him, ‘Boy bye,’” she sings victoriously.
She brings out the best athlete in the world, Serena Williams, to dance with her, and the two switch places. Bey recreates Serena’s iconic pose on the December 2015 cover of Sports Illustrated, sitting on a throne, draping one leg over the armrest. Serena becomes Bey, getting her eagle on in a bodysuit and twerking for all of our lives. It’s an adorable show of sisterhood and admiration as Bey escapes from the pain of her husband’s betrayal into a party with her girls.
Her escape continues in “6 Inch,” another club hit and potential sex workers’ anthem: “She don’t give it up, she professional.” She’s not doing this for free! The song is a tribute to a woman on her grind, stacking her paper but smart enough not to “crave material things.” She grinds simply for the love of it.
Biblical images abound in Lemonade, and on this track, she doesn’t destroy her home with water as she did before; it’s the fire next time, as she channels scorned Black woman Bernadine Harris in Waiting to Exhale, as her house goes up in flames behind her.
Still, as she grinds at work, and embodies everyone’s fantasy woman, her heart breaks yet again as she realizes that even at the top of her game, even as she achieves everything patriarchy tells her to be, everything “I do to make you love me,” she sings, still won’t make her husband be faithful to her. Her voice cracks as she sings, “Come back.” Grief is cyclical, and Beyoncé is unapologetically human as she allows herself to feel every inconvenient emotion this betrayal conjures within her.
Deconstructing Black Female Trauma as Intergenerational
“Mother dearest, teach me how to make him beg,” she says as she starts to connect the dots between her own failing marriage and her parents’. “Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his head? Am I talking about your husband or your father?” She asks an unseen mother these questions, as she stands in a field, wearing an African patterned dress in this Black southern goth fairytale, mixing her Louisiana, Texas, and West African heritage.
Hearing no answer, she realizes that the pattern of abuse for Black women in her family by the Black men who are supposed to love them is far beyond just her and her mother’s experience. There is an ancestral inheritance of abuse that binds her to her women ancestors. It didn’t begin with her. She’s not alone in this betrayal. “What a fucking curse,” she remarks. But it’s through this understanding that she can begin to heal.
On the blues-country song, “Daddy’s Lessons” (that better rack up at the CMAs), she chronicles her complicated relationship with her father, who cheated on her mother for years, while also loving her as a daughter and teaching her valuable lessons—like to shoot any man who reminds her of him.
With this song, we also get one of many glimpses that Lemonade isn’t necessarily autobiographical. Though the film intercuts home video of Beyoncé’s estranged father, Mathew Knowles and a very young Bey, as well as Knowles and his granddaughter Blue Ivy, the “Daddy,” in this song is now dead.
Reconciliation through Self-Compassion
Through her understanding of abuse as generational, Beyoncé gains compassion for herself by recognizing how intergenerational abuse of Black women has shaped her life. She’s then able to see that her husband is not only repeating the betrayal of her father, but of his own father as well. Then, she can extend compassion to her husband for how abuse has also shaped his life.
As she moves into the reformation period of her crumbling marriage, he bathes her, until she “forgets their names.” He is serving her and the power imbalance shifts, but they haven’t switched places. He’s taking responsibility for the harm he’s caused her. His humility in bathing her sets them on equal ground, a new starting point with shared power.
Once he’s acknowledged and atoned for the harm he’s caused, she can acknowledge that his actions spring from hurt. “Why do you deny yourself heaven?” she asks him. “Why do you consider yourself unworthy?”
“You are the love of my life,” she emphasizes so he can believe it. But her husband is still noticeably absent from the film. Instead, for the R&B ballad “Love Drought,” Beyoncé is surrounded again by her sisters, dressed in all white, who follow her to the water, who get baptized again together and stand, hands clasped together and raised above their heads.
“There is a curse that will be broken,” she promises.
Senbanjo’s Ori art returns, as the markings on Bey’s face smear into tears under her eyes. “If we’re going to heal,” she says, “let it be glorious.”
Beyoncé showcases her exquisite attention to detail in the next ballad, “Sandcastles,” as the camera focuses on a kintsugi bowl that represents their marriage. As Cosmopolitan pointed out, Kintsugi is a Japanese style of repairing broken pottery by highlighting the cracks in gold, so as to acknowledge the unique history, restoration, and beauty in formerly broken things.
Though she promised him that she was leaving him for good, “Every promise don’t work out that way,” she sings as her husband, Jay-Z, makes his first appearance in the film, forty-one minutes into its one-hour-and-five-minute runtime. First we see his watch, then his hand caressing her face, then his face. In the most intimate and loving public image of Jay-Z to date, he lays at his wife’s feet, broken, humbled. Her voice cracks as she sings to him. Her anger is still there, but she can’t erase him from her life.
“Patriarchy as Fatal to Marriage… Matriarchy as Redemptive”
She holds his head. “Show me your scars, and I won’t walk away,” she swears. We see video from the day they tattooed the Roman numeral IV on their wedding fingers. Now that he is not her god and she has found God in herself, embraced her roots, knows herself and is on the path to decolonizing the power structure in her marriage, their devotion to each other is restored. They are starting over, this time as equals. As Twitter user Olivia St. Clair Long perfectly summarizes in this thread, Lemonade exposes “Patriarchy as fatal to a marriage and family… Matriarchy as redemptive, healing.”
Now they can break the curse for their daughters, the one who lived, Blue Ivy, who came out of her via C-section, and the one who died, and came out as a flower “blossoming through the hole in my face.”
Redemptive matriarchy, as seen in Lemonade, is not the paternalistic view of women being “saved through childbirth,” as the Apostle Paul writes in the book of Timothy. Redemptive matriarchy is womanism, the Black woman-centered, intersectional feminist movement that seeks freedom for every member of our community.
“How are we supposed to lead our children to the future?” A Black woman asks, as all womanists do. “Love,” the Black woman answers herself. Young Black women and girls—actress Zendaya, singing group Ibeyi, actress Quvenzhané Wallis, model Winnie Harlow, and more gather in the woods for a picture, taken by the amazing young non-binary activist and filmmaker Amandla Stenberg.
In iconic images, the girls sit and stand with Beyoncé on the limbs of the ancient, twisted trees where their ancestors also sat. Wearing all white, as the New York Times points out, they channel Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust about Gullah women who maintained African culture despite the American terrorism of slavery. Like the Daughters of the Dust, these young women of the future will know and love their history, culture, and themselves. The curse will be broken.
Decolonized Christianity as Revolution
“When your back’s against the wall and the wall’s against your back, who you call?” the woman asks. “You gotta call Jesus because you ain’t got no other hope.” Now that Beyoncé has shed patriarchal understandings of both love and Christianity, she can re-engage both, honoring the faiths of all of her ancestors, which allowed them to survive and her to exist.
On the haunting song “Forward,” she features the powerful images of Black mothers holding pictures of their slain Black sons, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. These women heal their individual pain by coming together, sharing each other’s burdens, as they gather outside with other Black mothers, sisters, and daughters.
These women symbolize that grief doesn’t ever leave us. What’s done is done. But knowing we’re not alone and we’ve never truly been alone—even in our pain—is what heals them enough to keep moving forward.
With the help of Beyoncé’s ancestors in the past, her husband’s re-devotion, her sisters’ strength in the present, and the hope in her daughters for the future, she’s not only able to heal, forgive, and reconcile, she’s equipped to fight.
Out of her brokenness, she forges the modern Negro Spiritual, “Freedom.” “I’ma wade, I’m a wave through waters,” she sings, ready for God to trouble the waters and bring about change. “Tell the tide, ‘Don’t move,’” she channels Joshua’s Old Testament command for the sun to stand still so he can win the battle against his enemies.
“Lord, forgive me, I’ve been running, running blind in truth,” she acknowledges she was asleep. Now, Beyoncé is woke. Her allegiance to “respectability”—the idea that if Black women or Black people act or dress a certain way, they will be safe from oppressive systems—is dead. Tell the “sweet,” tell the “deep,” “I’m new,” she announces.
Forget what you thought: The new Beyoncé “riot[s] through your borders,” marches “on the regular,” turning Black pain into ammunition to keep running, because “I need freedom, too!” That statement is as much for Black patriarchs as to the police and all systems of oppression that brutalize the Black community.
“I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell,” she vows. She will be free at home, at work, outside and inside. The curses of White Supremacy, imperialism, patriarchy, queerphobia, ableism, and class oppression will all be broken.
Beyoncé finds the cure to break the curse of colonization in her grandmother’s lemonade recipe: ancestral guidance, fully processed emotions, deconstructed roots, sisterhood, spirituality, and communal healing. With triumphant trumpets blaring, she expresses the unconditional love she can now give and receive in the song “All Night Long,” as images of queer love, interracial love, Black love, and the intersections therein are displayed.
Beyoncé is happy and free, walking in the same tall grass from the opening shot, not in a hoodie, but in her African-patterned Southern gothic dress. Skipping past the ruins, she has become whole, and from that wholeness she can love herself and others fully.
Now, she and her sisters can answer the call to arms and get in “Formation,” slaying systems of oppression for themselves, their mothers, and their children. The curse will be broken.
Ashé and amen.
Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act