The Most Artful References In Beyoncé's 'Lemonade'
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a triumphant masterpiece. It’s a musically innovative album accompanied by an Oscar-worthy art film, a love letter to the beauty, resilience, and individuality of black women, and yes, a fabulously public dragging of one of the world’s most famous men. Lemonade is the pinnacle of Beyoncé’s career, a showcase of an artist conquering multiple mediums at once. She also utters the line “suck on my balls, pause.” A+.
In the past, Beyoncé has been accused of outright theft from artists. But Lemonade is a massive operation, one that directly mixes creators and influences. Both the film and album (although can you really separate them?) are rich with explicit references across several mediums, beginning with the raw verse of poet Warsan Shire, which is used to marvelous effect to separate Lemonade’s various chapters. The video components are shot like an art film—there have a been a number of comparisons to Terrence Malick—and the imagery is pure Southern Gothic. Musical credits include artists as varied as Milk favorite Melo-X, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, The Weeknd, Father John Misty, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The-Dream, Jack White, and Diplo.
Fully understanding all of the numerous artistic allusions in Lemonade is a task that will likely take months, or even years; most of the massive group of directors (overseen by Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph) cinematographers, artists, and stylists involved have yet to speak out about the project, and Beyoncé herself isn’t likely to fully explain her creative vision. But here are a few of our favorite references.
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust
The 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” is an epic tale of three generations of West African women who migrate to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. It’s visually stunning, and its imagery of the Deep South seems to have greatly inspired Lemonade. Like Lemonade, it’s more about tone than strict narrative, and it focuses on the black female experience. It’s a profoundly beautiful film, and one that’s found a new audience since the release of Lemonade: it’s coming back to the big screen.
Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All
Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist is known for her video and installation work, most of which touches on feminism, or at least the female experience. As her bio states, Rist’s personal belief is that “Art’s task is to contribute to evolution, to encourage the mind, to guarantee a detached view of social changes, to conjure up positive energies, to create sensuousness, to reconcile reason and instinct, to research possibilities and to destroy clichés and prejudices.” Isn’t that exactly what Lemonade is all about?
The “Hold Up” video, which contains the already-endlessly gif’d sequence of Beyoncé smashing car windows with a baseball bat, seems to be a pretty clear homage to Rist’s audiovisual installation Ever Is Over All. It features the artist walking down a European street in a beautiful dress, delightfully smashing a car. As Mark Joseph Stern wrote at Slate, “The exuberant display of female power—the juxtaposition between Rist’s cheerful demeanor and violent actions—is both charming and cryptic. All this makes it a perfect point of reference for Beyoncé, whose work frequently charts the intersection between female power and sexuality.”
Beloved author Toni Morrison (a literary pun!) has her fingerprints all over Lemonade. As the author of books like The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, Morrison is the master of epic storytelling, and probably America’s greatest living novelist. Many writers have commented that Lemonade is like seeing her words come to life: fragmented, dreamy, magical narratives that center around the lives of black women. Morrison’s work, in which women are both broken and powerful, tortured and loved, seems essential to Beyoncé’s project.
One quote from Beloved feels especially relevant to Lemonade. “Freeing yourself was one thing,” wrote Morrison. “Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter
This 1952 film noir tells the story of Reverend Henry Powell, a West Virginia serial killer who marries the widow of a bank robber. It’s one of iconic movie star Robert Mitchum’s greatest performances of all time, and it’s also a dark, frightening, and somewhat otherworldly movie. It feels both familiar and surreal, much like Lemonade.
The transition from Lemonade’s first chapter into the second features a stunning sequence in which Beyoncé leaps from the ledge of a city building. She lands with a splash into a pool of water, and the scene transitions into an underwater set piece, in which there are two Beyoncés: one gently sleeping, the other staring down at her as we hear Shire’s poetry about infidelity. The cinematography is reminiscent of an especially eerie scene in The Night of the Hunter, in which the body of Powell’s wife floats beneath a river.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie
Lemonade is divided into 12 chapters, each with a one-word-long title: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope, and Redemption. It’s definitely referencing the Kübler-Ross model, more widely known as the five stages of grief. In the 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross laid out the experiences that most people go through when grieving, namely denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.
Lemonade has a similar structure, but it also recalls legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie, which is divided into 12 tales about the life of Nana (played by Anna Karina). Nana eventually falls into prostitution, but Vivre Sa Vie can also be read as a story of female independence, of leaving men to live a life of one’s own—very Lemonade.
The Cinematography of Harris Savides
Harris Savides, who unfortunately passed away from brain cancer in 2012, was one of America’s most revered cinematographers. He began as a fashion photographer, eventually shooting music videos for the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. He then began a career working with some of the greatest artists film has to offer, including Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, and Sofia Coppola.
Savides is a massive influence on cinematography on the whole, but the work in “Sandcastles” feels particularly like his style. The video, which cuts in close to Beyoncé playing piano in an empty room and then moves into affectionate moments between her and Jay Z, utilizes soft lighting and earth tones as a short cut for signifying intimacy. Very Savides.
Lead image by Kathryn Chadason. Additional image via The New York Times.
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