BOW DOWN B*TCHES
Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’ Is a Testament to Her Unrivaled Genius
The behind-the-scenes documentary chronicles all the hard work that went into her history-making Coachella performance, including her comeback from a traumatic childbirth.
In 2016, Beyoncé cemented her superstar status with Lemonade, a stunning visual album that showcased her complete command as both an artist and a mega-celebrity. Lemonade proved that she could take in infidelity rumors and scandal, and still churn out groundbreaking art, topping the charts while simultaneously changing the conversation.
Even before Lemonade, Beyoncé was in a league of her own. When she raises the bar, as she always does, she’s one-upping herself; it’s not a question of intimidating challengers, but of legacy, and of proving to her incredulous fans that she can go even higher.
Last year’s “Beychella” performance was yet another example of Beyoncé exceeding all expectations. As the festival’s headliner, she pushed the absolute limits of the form with a spectacular, nuanced, and all-around jaw-dropping ode to HBCU culture and black excellence. As The New York Times summarized, “Beyoncé’s show brought more than a century of black musical traditions to America’s biggest music festival, with quotations and techniques joining her hits with Houston’s slowed-down screw music, Washington, D.C.’s percussive go-go rhythms, New Orleans’ brass bands and bounce artists, the Nigerian Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the Jamaican dancehall of Sister Nancy, the Atlanta crunk of Pastor Troy, and even a moment for ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the early 1900s hymn long called the black national anthem.”
Now, a year later, the prolific artist and businesswoman has written, directed, and executive-produced Homecoming, a Netflix documentary about her Coachella performance. She also surprise-released a live album of the festival set tied to the film, because of course she did. Beyoncé’s still-evolving legacy is one of total creative control. Homecoming is an incredible concert film, but it’s also a testament to the totality of Beyoncé’s vision, the fact that she gave us a groundbreaking performance and then, a year later, showed us how to watch it. The real beauty of Homecoming isn’t the performance footage or the flashes of Beyoncé’s inner life; it’s the latest opportunity to see her mind at work.
Homecoming is artfully arranged, with behind-the-scenes content book-ended by swathes of Beychella, contextualized with quotes from black artists and intellectuals from Toni Morrison to W.E.B. Du Bois and Audre Lorde. In voiceovers, Beyoncé shares her vision, an homage to historically black colleges and universities, saying, “I always dreamed of going to an HBCU.” Naturally, there’s a bigger picture here. Beyoncé assembled a massive team of steppers, musicians, vocalists, and dancers, noting, “The amount of swag is just limitless… It’s just so much damn swag.”
Beyoncé conceived of her Coachella performance as an homage to an HBCU homecoming, as well as a personal return to performing after giving birth to twins. Against home footage of sonograms and her newborn babies, Beyoncé explains how she was supposed to headline Coachella the year before, but got pregnant “unexpectedly.” She recalls, “My body went through more than I knew it could. I was 218 pounds the day I gave birth.” She goes on to describe the pregnancy as “extremely difficult”, culminating in an emergency C-section when one of the babies’ heartbeats “paused a few times.”
“It’s my first time back home, on the stage, after giving birth; I’m creating my own homecoming,” She narrates. “All of my mistakes, all of the triumphs of my 22-year career into my two-hour homecoming performance.”
Reflecting on the weight of being the first African-American woman to headline Coachella, Beyoncé notes that, “It was important to me that everyone that had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us.” She continues, “Black women often feel underestimated, and I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process.”
“I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves, their sass, their honesty, thankful for their freedom… We were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized.”
“When I decided to do Coachella, instead of bringing out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” Beyoncé explains. In a voiceover, the late, great Nina Simone intones, “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent upon giving out to them that blackness, that black power, that black—pushing them to identify with black culture… I have no choice over it… to me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people.”
Naturally, bringing an HBCU homecoming-inspired career retrospective to life was a months-long, exhausting endeavor. Homecoming gives viewers a peak into Beyoncé’s meticulous process. “I personally selected each dancer, every light, the material on the steps, the height of the pyramid, the shape of the pyramid,” she explains. “I’m super-specific about every detail.”
Performance prep included four months of rehearsals just with the band, followed by four months of dance rehearsals. Beyoncé is incredibly hands-on, leading the group in prayers and pep talks and then reviewing and giving notes after every single rehearsal. One particularly revealing scene shows Beyoncé handing out her notes after a long day, Jay Z sitting silently beside her, nodding. Only after the meeting ends do we learn that it’s their anniversary.
Beyoncé’s dedication to realizing her vision is extreme. It means time away from her family and her newborns, not to mention “rebuild[ing]” her body and tackling intense choreography. In addition to SoulCycle and day-long rehearsals, that meant cutting out bread, carbs, sugar, dairy, meat, fish, and alcohol. “I’m hungry,” Beyoncé admits at one point. Reflecting on the uphill journey to Coachella, Beyoncé swears that, “I will never push myself that far again.” Somehow, it’s hard to believe her.
Despite all of the sacrifice, Homecoming is full of joy, from the “family” that Beyoncé put together on stage to the screaming, crying fans mouthing along to her every word. The concert footage finds extremely personal, almost intimate moments buried in the massive spectacle. From this vantage point, we can see the easy, ecstatic way Beyoncé interacts with her husband and her “best friends,” the other members of Destiny’s Child, onstage. Behind-the-scenes footage of Jay Z and Blue Ivy at rehearsals confirms that this performance is inspired by and dedicated to her family, “my weakness and my strength.”
As the film comes to an end, Beyoncé says, “I feel we made something that made by daughter proud.” Footage flashes of Blue Ivy singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “black national anthem” that Beyoncé featured in her set. She continues, “Made my mother proud, my father proud, and all of the people that are my brothers and sisters around the world, and that’s why I live.” As the documentary builds up to the final portion of the performance, a Maya Angelou voiceover exhorts, “Tell the truth, to yourself first. And to the children. Live in the present, don’t deny the past. Live in the present, and know the charge on you is to make this country more than it is today.” The camera pans over the assembled Coachella crowd, somehow blurring it into something beautiful.