December 11, 2017KR BlogLiterature

The Influence of Zora Neale Hurston’s Films on Beyoncé’s Lemonade

I re-watched Lemonade last night. From the moment Beyoncé’s “Visual Album” Lemonade exploded onto the aesthetic scene, everyone has been scrambling to trace its formidable roots. In mapping out Lemonade’s visual album precursors, critics have identified such crucial early films as the Beatles’ 1964 A Hard Day’s Night, Michael Jackson’s 1983 Thriller, and Prince’s 1984 Purple Rain. They have also correctly noted that there are strains of Zora Neale Hurston’s literary voice in Lemonade. To be sure, the description of the protagonist of Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford, as “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny” could just as easily define Beyoncé’s own trajectory as an artist to date—with Lemonade effectively supergluing her finger to that trigger.

They even identify Queen Bey’s female cinematic predecessors, including Julie Dash and her powerful 1991 Daughters of the Dust about generations of Gullah women on St. Helena Island. But what I was reminded of as I watched was Hurston’s own earlier film work that appears to deeply inform Lemonade. In addition to a novelist, Hurston was an anthropologist who chronicled rural black Southern life in several silent films, including“Children Games,” “Logging” (both 1928) and “Baptism” (1929), all of which have been condensed into “Fieldwork.” (Note that the films have been run together and music has been added to what were originally silent films).

As we can see from Hurston’s short films, like Beyoncé, she was after a documentary take on everyday black life, and particularly the life of black women; take that arrestingly candid shot of the woman smiling, and looking unguardedly at Hurston’s camera around minute 2. Hurston’s portrayal of this woman in particular demonstrates her experimental techniques that predate the work of such later female avant-garde filmmakers as Maya Deren (whose Meshes of the Afternoon would perplex and astound audiences in 1943).

For instance, Hurston utilizes jump-cuts to take different angles on this woman’s body and experience, moving from full-frontal close-up to alternating shots in various locations, seen from different perspectives, engaged in different activities. This camera work reveals the awareness of the flesh and blood nature of the female body that pervades both Hurston’s film and fiction and Lemonade—in which Beyoncé and all the other women in the film positively erupt in all their bold, unapologetic female glory.

Perhaps the most eerie overlap between Hurston’s film work and Lemonade is their shared female baptism scenes. In Hurston’s, we see a young girl being led into the water for baptism by a man. In Beyoncé’s take on the ritual, we see no man as usher, but rather a string of women in white dresses with black crosses walking free as they please in the water.

Like Beyoncé, Hurston employs film as both a document of the black culture around her and also as an expression of her own subjectivity. She features images of herself in Lemonade but also of countless other women, both famous and not, thereby mixing the registers of reality and fiction just as Hurston did (Hurston would later fictionalize a lot of the material she collected in her fieldwork, for instance).

Moreover, just as Hurston utilized both the visual and verbal in her art through the combination of her film and literary work, Beyoncé ties her own verbal lyrics to the visual work of the various filmmakers she brings on board (including Jonas Akerlund, Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso, and let’s not forget that Beyoncé also participated as co-director here), as well as to the verbal renderings of various song co-writers and, perhaps most memorably, to the excerpts of Warsan Shire’s poetry she reads between songs.

In an intriguing twist, ultimately Hurston, Shire, and Beyoncé are all concerned with a sort of feminine anthropology, an archaeology even—excavating the body of woman, generation through generation, mapping a matriarchal lineage. In one Shire excerpt Beyonce recites, her manicurist looks at her palm and tells her “I see your daughters and their daughters / That night, in a dream, the first girl emerges from a slit in my stomach.”