'Homecoming': Beyoncé Crafts A Cinematic Love Letter To Black People And HBCUs For Netflix [REVIEW]

April 17th 2019

Beyoncé loves us, y’all.

That’s the main message of her two-hour concert documentary Homecoming that dropped at midnight / 3 A.M. ET on Netflix this morning. Documenting her historic 2018 performance as the first Black woman to headline Coachella, Homecoming is more than just a presentation of the most popular cuts from her discography intercut with home footage. It’s an epic ride through Black history in America with Black music as its vehicle.

Like Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ most turnt event, Homecoming harnesses the power of Black bands, Black Greek life and Black musical stylings that span the Diaspora. After her grand entrance costumed by Balmain as an Ancient Egyptian queen flanked by her Black women dancers, her all-Black brass band and her all-Black women orchestra positioned on bleachers that are shaped like a pyramid, Beyoncé starts off singing the first single of her iconic solo career, “Crazy in Love.” In no time, she’s on the ground twerking to a Black Homecoming classic: “Back That A** Up.” For Beyoncé, there is no conflict, no tension between the genius of Ancient Egyptians and a good West-African-rooted twerk session. Catch that message!

From her hip-hop anthem “Freedom,” she transitions seamlessly into the Negro national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The dancers, brass band, and orchestra all bend over backward and roar from their guts between the stanzas of the song as flames shoot into the sky. Beyoncé’s national anthem rendition is a war cry.

The roars serve as both acknowledgment of the anger, the pain of Black American history, as well as literal fuel for the fire. Immediately transitioning into her hit song “Formation,” there’s no doubt that this is Beyoncé calling us into action. As the Toni Morrison quote reads at the beginning of Homecoming, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Our history isn't working against us, it's working for us, propelling us forward. Connect Morrison’s quote to the Black American folktale The People Could Fly and our marching orders could not be more clear: It’s time to wake up, be excellent and fulfill our potential for the good of our community, and the world.

But even if you saw all of this last year, either at Beychella or on the YouTube livestream, Homecoming offers more than just different camera angles and a high-definition view of the second weekend Coachella performance that wasn’t livestreamed at the time. Homecoming provides a behind-the-scenes look into her journey to bring the epitome of Black excellence—homecoming culture—to Black people who could never afford to attend the hella expensive, predominantly white music festival.

It’s not that HBCU grads needed Beyoncé’s performance to experience our own culture; it’s that she chose to center our culture on a global stage in front of a young white audience who probably thought “Lift Ev’ry Voice” was the superstar's new ballad. She offers them no overt explanation for why she transitions from a step show to an Alvin Ailey homage set to Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine,” to the most epic Swag Surf to ever hit the main stage. There’s no pause to explain that Crucial Conflict’s “Hay in the Middle of the Barn,” is a Black homecoming band essential tune that signals the turn-up. The always front-and-center BeyHive aside, Beyoncé and her two hundred performers were projecting above the crowd in attendance, beyond them, straight to us.

Courtesy of Parkwood Courtesy of Parkwood

As she solidifies herself as the number one performer in the world, she answers the question that confused audience members and other white people watching may have been asking themselves—why so Black, Beyoncé?—with a voiceover from a Nina Simone interview: “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent upon… giving out to them that BLACK-ness, that BLACK-power, that BLACK…pushing them to identify with Black culture; I think that’s what you’re asking. I have no choice over it; in the first place, to me we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people. And I mean that in every sense.”

In an anti-Black world, it was revolutionary when Simone said it. In 2019, it’s still revolutionary for Beyoncé to make that quote the thesis statement of Homecoming, damning the predominantly white audience to Google.

It’s revolutionary to center HBCU culture when many HBCUs are struggling to keep their doors open today. Centuries of systemic, American anti-Blackness and white supremacy have taught us that what is Black will always fall short of a white standard. Though all-Black spaces are hardly inherently safe or liberated spaces (ask Black women, queer folks, disabled folks and all of the intersecting oppressions therein), HBCUs have served as protection from the microaggressions and the bigotry of low expectations that exist in the white supremacist world.

When resources are being allocated, the 100 HBCUs still operating don’t always have access to those resources, fulfilling the anti-Black narrative of “lesser” education. Not on Beyoncé’s watch. Homecoming consistently pays homage to HBCUs, showing footage of Hampton University, Alabama State University, North Carolina A&T University and more. In addition to her Ivy Park gear, Beyoncé herself sports Howard University and Morehouse sweatshirts throughout the behind-the-scenes portion of the documentary.

Quotes from HBCU alumni also dominate screen time, confirming to audiences that Black people are wise and should be listened to—and they got that wisdom from our HBCUs. She ends Homecoming with a call to arms that HBCUs be “celebrated and protected.” And she answered her own call by donating $100,000 in full-tuition scholarships to HBCU students.

Yes, this performance is about community and culture—representing all the Fenty shades of Blackness and showcasing different body types across the gender spectrum, but it’s also deeply personal.

Homecoming is not just an homage to HBCUs’ main event; it’s also marking her triumphant return to performing after a nearly two-year absence. On stage is where the icon feels at “home,” --and she brought out her BFFs, former Destiny's Child bandmates, her husband Jay-Z and her sister Solange to solidify that. Though she was set to headline in 2017, she had to take time off, and even postponed her Coachella performance for a year when she found out she was unexpectedly pregnant with twins.

Screenshot from 'Homecoming' on Netflix Screenshot from 'Homecoming' on Netflix

The notoriously private superstar shared a bit of her journey with weight loss after giving birth to twins and her fear that, at 218 pounds, she would never get her body or her stamina back to where it was before she had Sir and Rumi. When she celebrated being able to fit back into one of her old costumes by FaceTiming Jay-Z, it was doubly heartbreaking to watch, considering that even after all of her hard work and her pride in her new body, how many people were on Twitter speculating during the live performance that her stomach shape meant she was pregnant with her lucky baby number four.

Those of us with sense were too busy coveting her perfect ass--which she proudly displays in booty shorts for half of the concert’s runtime--to speculate on the state of her uterus. Though Knowles-Carter didn’t address the speculation in Homecoming, she did dispel those rumors in her Vogue cover story after her performance, praising her “little FUPA,” (“fat upper p**sy area) and her new maternity curves.

She also subtly addressed the critics who have dismissed her talent as a writer, director and producer because she’s known to work with many collaborators. On Homecoming, Beyoncé is taking time to talk her shit. Every frame of the documentary was under her control. “Every tiny detail had an intention,” she shares in voiceover as rehearsal and costume production footage plays. “I hand-selected every dancer, every light fixture, every step on the pyramid.” In other words, Beyoncé BEEN Knowles.

As all of Beyoncé’s public offerings are, Homecoming is well-curated, but that doesn’t lessen the authenticity of the moments to which she benevolently grants us access. The scenes of her worrying about whether she’ll ever fit into her costumes again or feel like herself again, don’t exist to add any narrative tension; we all know that in 100 more days her SoulCycle workouts, constant rehearsals, and “no bread, no meat, no sugar, no dairy, no alcohol,” diet are going to pay off. We’re here for the way she ends that sentence: “I’m hungry.”

It’s her humanity that we get to connect to in these scenes. We see the struggle in the midst of the final, perfect production, so that we understand what she told us back in her Lemonade film, “God is God and I am not.” Yes, she is an exceptional human being. Yes, she’s Nene Leakes--“very rich, bitch,”--who can afford SoulCycle and trainers and vegan diets that still taste good. And she’s also the product of a Que Dawg HBCU graduate from Alabama and a Louisiana mama, who made a Texas bama. “If my country ass can do it,” then we too can be excellent, she says.

Screenshot from 'Homecoming' on Netflix Screenshot from 'Homecoming' on Netflix

In the middle of it all is Blue Ivy, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s seven-year-old daughter, whose on-camera acapella rendition of "Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing" brings out the tears and serves to put us all on notice: give her 10 years and she’s taking over the game. Beyoncé is cementing a legacy, not just for herself, but for her “fifty-leven children,” as she calls them—including the twins who also make adorable cameos.

It’s why she uses Maya Angelou’s voiceover in Homecoming, as the poet speaks her famous quote: “Tell the truth, to yourself first, and to the children.” Just as Blue Ivy mimicked every run in her mother’s rendition of the Negro national anthem to a tee, the children are watching us. We have no choice but to become the best and highest versions of ourselves.

Homecoming ends the way all Black parties end: with a rendition of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s "Before I Let Go." It’s the last in a two-hour love letter to overt and intentional Blackness. Her remixed cover of the classic is distinctly Beyoncé, adding a NOLA bounce, hand claps and high hats to the beat. Yet it stays close enough to the original to remind us—as the best music does—of the strong foundation already laid for us by our predecessors.

It’s that message, that journey through Black people’s painful, joyful and beautiful history that makes Homecoming more than your average concert documentary. It’s a weapon against anti-Blackness on a global scale. It’s an affirmation that we as Black people are just as worthy of love and protection as the culture we produce that’s consumed by the world. It’s a reminder that the standard of excellence—for Coachella performances, for visual albums, for global influence—is a Black woman who is Black as hell and she loves it. And she loves us too!

What choice do we have but to do the same?

Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.

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Photo: Screenshot from 'Homecoming' on Netflix

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