Contemporary audiences, at least those who traverse the pages of YouTube, may be auteurists and not even know it, partially because of a kind of music journalism that purports the auteur theory without a complete understanding. But chatter about so and so’s new video — Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Arctic Monkeys — is spoken with the authority that the musical artist is the artist of the video, the implication being that they are both artist and author. Amongst the most daring is the much feted Beyoncé, who, in the middle of December 2013, dropped, seemingly at random, not only an entire studio album with 14 tracks, but a “visual album” that spun itself like a manifesto of what it was to be Beyoncé; a mixture of confidence, assertiveness, complexity, sexuality, femininity, blackness, intellectualism and feminism. She hammered in these last points home just months earlier, bright lights behind her at the Super Bowl, staunchly declaring “feminism.” Beyoncé is too good and too interesting a performer/artist for her authorial vision to be boiled down into a single word, and it’s that kind of unwillingness to be compartmentalized or boxed in that informs her newest video, “Formation”, directed by Melina Matsoukas.
From the earliest frame, Beyoncé asserts an intriguing dominance by crouching on a police cruiser, and though the shot is momentary, Queen Bey’s preeminence is articulated and asserted. The following images are juxtapositions and antitheses to familiar narratives, something which Beyoncé is pointed about: documentary footage from Chris Black’s short film That B.E.A.T., a pan around the neighborhoods of New Orleans, Beyoncé in white lace, a parasol in hand and Beyoncé and company in the hallway dancing. IN these wide frames, there is cognizance on Beyoncé’s part of where exactly she exists both in the frame and what space she occupies in the world: she is one for whom the wealth and privilege are not to be taken for granted, and the creation of these images — in a very specific locale — is done to upend or subvert a particular narrative of how we understand those politics of identity: class, race, gender.
The work Beyoncé has done with director Matsoukas is kind of disorienting in its presence of these supposed opposites: the video begins with a warning of the explicit language typed up in an artificial Word Document, and yet it’s contrasted against Black’s nonfiction footage. Continuously, “Formation” pits the real and the artifice against one enough, through form and through medium. There’s the transitions with white noise, as if to suggest that video tape was involved in filming, but it’s so clearly digitally created that it’s the exact sense of unnerve that the investigation into identity should engender. There are flashes of light marks on the frames that pass Beyoncé standing on the porch of a white mansion, men surrounding her, and again, there is an unsureness of exactly what this was shot on. There’s old DV video, in faded blown out glory, observing her dance. And yet these ideas of analog imagery are interrupted by the fussiness of digital artifice.
Identity is as crucial to the video’s context as it is to its content, with the invocation of the #BlackLivesMatters movement and the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina doing much to push the video’s ideas. And these points have informed the lives of others, as well as Beyoncé’s. For her, the video is seemingly a reclamation of blackness in a cultural landscape where she has become accepted by a white audience that won’t acknowledge her blackness. As Rembert Browne puts it, “I hear this song and watch the video, and it’s like, oh shit — one too many white people and two too many men got a bit too familiar with Bey. And in these moments, when someone slips up and gets a little too comfortable, that’s when a full stop must be enacted, immediately.”
Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” She raises two middle fingers to the camera. Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, writes at NPR, “She sings to those of us who grew up black in the American South, who swam through Hurricane Katrina, … For those of us who buy Camellia red beans and creole seasoning… We needed to hear this.” Writer and filmmaker dream hampton goes so far as to call it a “film” — “it feels like… an Oscar-worthy feature.” Jenna Wortham asserts as much with regard to the way the video deals with identity, that “‘Formation’ isn’t just about police brutality — it’s about the entirety of the black experience in America in 2016, which includes standards of beauty, (dis)empowerment, culture, and the shared parts of our history.”
But to draw a connection between the formats a music video was shot on and identity politics is not entirely as farfetched as it seems: part of our understanding of art is, to some degree, based on the medium itself. It gives us a sense of identification, a familiarity that is rooted in what makes something and what is the being of that thing. Much of Beyoncé’s work, though not as centered on this idea of how exactly form connects to identity, is connected to knowing one’s self. She does this through lyrics, through aesthetic, through production design, through the potency of political iconography and through cultural iconography. And in the context of “Formation”, with the images of black women in a wig shop, black men standing in solidarity and Beyoncé — a black female artist — sitting atop a police cruiser, it means reclaiming that identity of blackness and making it as complex, nuanced and messy as identity should be. That final frame of Beyoncé sinking with the police cruiser is stunning, all at once nodding to Hurricane Katrina, police brutality, the power of blackness and the tensions of power between the individual and the institution. It mirrors an earlier shot of Beyoncé hanging out of a car. She’s created a dialogue, even a dialectic, of what kind of power identity has. Her authorship is recognizable because of its “meticulous[ness]” and even “lusciousness,” as Jon Caramanica and Wesley Morris point out in the New York Times, but what “Formation” might argue is that, of all the traits of Beyoncé’s “auteur-ness,” reconciliation and navigation of identity is one of the most crucial.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance film critic and writer. He’s also the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and began writing on the Internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, Kyle has contributed to TheBlackMaria.org, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and relieved to know that he’s not a golem.