If you don’t already understand why superstar singer-songwriter Beyoncé — the most-nominated female artist in Grammy history (she’s won 23) and one of the biggest-selling musicians in the history of music — is damn near worshipped as a goddess, the new documentary Homecoming is here to show you why. Part concert film, part myth-in-the-making, this is a glorious pop spectacle that is both enormously entertaining — even if you’re not a particular fan of Beyoncé’s, as I’m not — and hugely important. It may not be a stretch to call the moment it records as a landmark one for African-American culture. For American culture, full stop.
With no fucks given, Beyoncé presented to the 2018 Coachella music and arts festival and its mostly white audience a celebration of black Americana through the prism of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), which developed a distinct collective personality during segregation, when their African-American students were forbidden from attending schools reserved for whites. The full marching band and majorette dancers performing on and in front of a pyramid of football-stadium risers might not look entirely different from what was happening at white colleges and universities at the same time (or anywhere still today), but the very fact of this parallel existence is testament to black Americans’ defiance in making their own that which was denied to them.
There’s plenty that’s viscerally thrilling in the roar and rumble of the marching band, and in the throb and beat of the stomping dancers and musicians. (And, of course, in Beyoncé’s utterly commanding performance, including that fierce and formidable voice.) But there’s also something unsettling and disconcerting, in the best possible way, to me as a white American knowing that there’s a lot I’m missing in the richly layered and incredibly textured production — it’s so much more than a pop concert — because I don’t know a lot about HBCUs or even about African-American culture in general. I’m not talking about missing subtext, but text. And it’s a good thing that I’m missing it. It’s a great thing. It’s exciting, because it’s sending me down a rabbit hole of reading about stuff that’s new (to me) and interesting. And exciting because of what it says about what Beyoncé did here: She did not water anything down for her white audience. Instead she gives us white people a taste of what it means to be the outsiders looking in — and looking in on something cool and amazing and enrapturing and magnificent! — and invites us to keep up. Not that it’s that hard to keep up! But it’s not often that the dominant perspective is asked so little as to not expect to be catered to.
That’s what makes Homecoming so historic: it is angry and noble and demanding and joyful about black empowerment and black pride, but mostly it is unapologetic. (Literally one of Beyoncé’s famous lyrics: “Sorry, I ain’t sorry.” She sings that one here.) It is saying — or, at least, this is what I am hearing — that everything African-American is also just American. That black Americans are also just Americans. Without denying that there is a separate and discrete history and culture for African-Americans, the rest of us have to acknowledge and accept that those are also the history and the culture of us all. Even if that means the rest of us have a learning curve to climb.
Important enough when this was “merely” the centerpiece of Coachella last year, when Beyoncé became the first African-American woman to headline (and only the third woman of any race to solo-headline). But now it’s on Netflix for all to see (and everyone should). When word of the sensational production with its huge cast of performers, dazzling (and numerous) costumes, and astonishing choreography came out of Coachella last year, it seemed almost literally unbelievable that so much effort had gone into a show that would be performed only twice (on each of the two Saturday evenings of the festival). When this documentary dropped without warning on the streaming service last month, suddenly it seemed less unbelievable, with the production caught on film and preserved forever.
And there’s extra glory in this format that perhaps makes up in very small measure for not having seen this in person. For one, the costumes in each performance were different, and as the film cuts between one performance and the other, some truly stunning editing sometimes makes it seem as if the performers have magically changed costumes from one moment to the next; that’s also a tribute to the precision of the choreography (as well as the cinematography), that what was captured visually even made such seamlessness possible.
There’s a thematic thread running through the musical production about black feminism and the power and resilience of black women, and that is more than underscored by the making-of footage Homecoming the film offers. The artist discusses the difficulties of, very soon after the birth of her twins, jumping right into the intensive eight-month preparation and rehearsal schedule for the show; she has, we see, input on every tiny detail of the production. This also includes getting herself, postpregnancy, back into the peak physical condition that the show would demand. All this while breastfeeding and simply wanting to be with her newborns as much as possible. (She also has a six-year-old who needed her attention.) Oh, and there was also the simultaneous prep and rehearsal for making this movie, which Beyoncé directed (with an assist from her longtime collaborator Ed Burke). It’s tempting to say she must be superpowered, but the dreamy, stream-of-consciousness feel created by her voiceovers and often home-movie-esque 8mm (or 8mm-seeming) visuals anchor it all very much in the real life of a real woman who is both a working professional and a busy mom.
Beyoncé and her immensely talented fellow performers make what they do onstage look effortless; the behind-the-scenes stuff clues us in to how hard it was. (“I will never push myself that far again,” she says here, with a laugh.) Beyoncé’s onstage presence and the lyrics she belts out exude a wonderful confidence — sometimes even a delicious and totally warranted arrogance — that we celebrate in men but often fail to appreciate in women; the behind-the-scenes stuff leaves no doubt as to how absolutely justified that is. That she is crafting her own portrait of herself here? That is peak black empowerment, peak black feminism. And Homecoming — the concert and the documentary — is peak Beyoncé, her legend immortalized.