Beyoncé crouches on the hood of a police car halfway submerged in flood water that extends to the horizon, an image intended to recreate the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. This is the opening shot of the “Formation” music video. While much of the settings in and around New Orleans have focused on “the curse” and its history, this image places “the curse” in more present day context.
A closeup of Beyoncé leaning on her side atop the police car, delivering the opening refrain.
Left, the paparazzi overwhelm the frame in number and with flash photography, followed by footage of a bounce dancer performing in a mirror and Beyoncé commandingly posed on the car over the lines “…catch my fly and my cocky fresh” (right). This shows Beyoncé in control of her narrative in the face of the public gaze.
Left, Beyoncé rocking back and forth in unison with a troupe of female dancers in an ornate plantation house hallway; right, a French Renaissance style painting of regal Black women which, according to director Melina Matsoukas, was added to “Blackify” the mansion.
Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy (center), with her hair in an Afro, poses with a smirk and a hand on her hip alongside two other young Black girls in white dresses. Portraying Blue Ivy proudly rocking her Afro affirms her daughter just as she is in the face of public scrutiny of her natural hair, deemed by some “unruly” for a child from a family of such wealth and status.
Beyoncé leaning out the window of an El Camino, with a voiceover from Messy Mya offering approval, “Oh yes, I like that!”
Beyoncé and her troupe in an empty swimming pool, a likely reference to racial discrimination as public swimming pools were the target of segregation laws intended to keep Black men from swimming with White women in the 1920s and 30s. The act of dancing in an empty pool, especially in consideration with the story of the Hotel Last Frontier draining its pool when actress Dorothy Dandridge dipped her foot in it, is an act of defiance, what culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald called a “thumb in the eye of bigotry.”
Beyoncé surrounded by five Black women in Victorian dresses fanning themselves as they repeat Beyoncé’s overlaid lyrics implies the women claiming the same agency, power, and stardom for themselves.
Beyoncé and her troupe assemble now in a parking lot, rallied by her call to “get in formation,” implying both coordination and organization around racial justice, and the necessary “information” or educational component that accompanies such a movement.
Notice in the parking lot image and also from earlier in the drained swimming pool (left), the formation is an X pattern on the ground, understood to be an homage to Black liberation movement leader Malcolm X; right, Beyoncé dances at Super Bowl 50 in front of a troupe of dancers in all black leather jackets and the signature black berets of the Black Panther Party.
Beyoncé occupying the front porch of a plantation manor, accompanied by five Black men dressed in what would be considered high fashion of the Antebellum era, underscoring the fact that they are masters of this house.
A fictional newspaper titled “The Truth” featuring a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The headline and the subheading, “What is the real legacy of the revolutionary leader, and why was he recast as an acceptable Negro leader?” call to attention the historical whitewashing of King’s legacy, which largely ignores his call for economic redistribution of wealth and his criticism of moderate whites who seek to preserve the status quo rather than embrace revolutionary change.
A young Black boy facing a row of seven motionless police officers in riot gear dances in an alley wearing a black hoodie pulled up over his head, a blatant evocation of Trayvon Martin.
Left, the boy’s final dance move, which director Melina Matsoukas referred to as a “peace dance:” he stops and stretches his arms out from his sides, seeming to mimic both the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also Jesus Christ on the cross. Right, the line of policemen respond surprisingly by raising their arms in surrender, the boy having vanquished the power of systemic racism and state violence through peace, joy, love, and sacrifice.
A common phrase associated with protests of police brutality in graffiti on a wall, implying the creative team behind Lemonade saying “Enough is enough.”
Finally with her face visible under her wide-brimmed hat and with her concluding lines, Beyoncé predicts the media storm that came after the video’s release (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”) and urges her audience to thrive in the face of any barriers to success they face (“Best revenge is your paper”).
In the penultimate images of “Formation,” Beyoncé lies across the car as the flood waters begin to wash over her. She and the police cruiser sink to the depths, her arms outstretched in the familiar Christ pose. She drowns in solidarity with those who’d lost their lives or were displaced due to Katrina, those who Matsoukas said the police “hadn’t really shown up for [in Katrina].”
Consider her Christ pose here with the boy’s gesture (left) in front of the riot police and her pose during her leap of faith (right) in “Intuition.” In each of these three poses, the Christ figures offer themselves in submission with a “leap of faith” of sorts, in order to confront “the curse.” In all three, the Christ figure triumphs over the curse. In the boy’s case, he disarms the riot police with his gesture of love, his “peace dance.” In both of Beyoncé’s instances, her leap leaves her ominously submerged in water, highlighting the stakes of such a courageous leap, only to be born anew, highlighting the dichotomy of water as destroyer and giver of life.
The parting shot of Lemonade, one Matsoukas called the “Black girl air-grab,” a final moment of resistance after her apparent drowning on the cruiser, a refusal to let the flood waters and death have the last word, a shot of feminine defiance, celebration, and victory, before the credits roll.
BONUS MATERIALS: Episode References and Links
- Messy Mya, prominent YouTube personality, rapper, and bounce music star, in one of his “Messy Cam” YouTube vlogs:
- Short documentary film That B.E.A.T., the source of multiple shots of the New Orleans landscape and queer Black men dancing featured early on in the Formation video:
- One of Messy Mya’s most popular bounce tracks, “Iberville”:
- Commentary in The Huffington Post criticizing the public’s Change.org petition concerning Blue Ivy’s natural hair
- Hood Feminism author Mikki Kendall’s “Hot Sauce in Her Bag: Southern Black identity, Beyoncé, Jim Crow, and the pleasure of well-seasoned food
- Known as the “Queen of Bounce,” New Orleans bounce icon Big Freedia’s 2003 classic “Gin in My System”:
- Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kenya Moore defines the figure of speech “twirl” in an interview with Perez Hilton:
- From curbed.com, Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’: How a Historic Pasadena Home Went Southern Gothic for This Year’s Biggest Video where production designer Ethan Tobman discusses the manor setting of “Formation”
- 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, where drag queen Pepper Labeija explains the importance of the Ball (6:30):
- Exclusive from ELLE, April 2016, Beyoncé Wants to Change the Conversation
- Beyonce again in Vogue, September 2018
- TheGuardian.com interview with poet Claudine Rankin, discussing potential motivations behind the shooting of unarmed Black people
- Trouble the Water, a 2008 Documentary from which Kimberly Rivers Roberts’ voice is sampled: