The Magic Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas Form

1stimg
Beyonce, ‘Formation’
Formation (noun) – the action of forming or process of being formed.

Beyoncé understands the power of visuals. In 2013 she graced the world with an entire visual album and forever changed the way artists release music. So when she prepared Saturday, February 6, 2016, to be the day she’d return to scalp the globe with her pro-black anthem she knew she would need a video to capture the track’s grit and gutter. It would only make sense that she’d turn to Melina Matsoukas, the woman whose directed over 10 of Bey’s visuals.

While known for her vibrant colors, vintage flair, and ingenious direction, Melina does not shy away from controversy; her visuals have often either been banned or come under heavy scrutiny, but that doesn’t seem to stop the NYU and AFI alumna from creating thmelina-matsoukas-video-maven-w-magazinee most stunning videos at a time when narrative music videos seem to be declining. In her latest collaboration with Queen Bey she delves into the spirit of Southern Goth and New Orleans to bless viewers with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackExcellence, #BlackEverything.

“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”

‘Formation’ opens with Beyoncé dressed down in a red and white calico inspired fit and black boots. She is standing atop of a partially submerged New Orleans Police squad car as the late Messy Mya states “bitch, I’m back by popular demand.” Immediately you know that what you are about to witness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the Beyoncé and Melina catalog. Flashes of scenes from Abteen Bagheri’s (@abteen), That B.E.A.T., give you just enough time to brace yourself before being launched into a space where the past, the present, and the future intertwine at the picturesque plantation home. Inside is Beyoncé in various Southern garb as she recites her linage:

“My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas Bama”

It is then that you realize Beyoncé is leading you to a place of no return. For years she has subtly distanced herself from the mainstream media that once kept her in a commercialized box. ‘Formation’ is where she breaks her silence. What we hear, and see, is a Beyoncé who is unapologetically black, who likes her “baby hair with baby hair and afros,” and her “negro nose with jackson five nostrils.” Blue Ivy Carter stands before us, her afro a glorious halo, with all of the grace and confidence that make up her celestial DNA. Melina cuts back and forth between Mother and Daughter conjuring up a spirit, a tangible feeling, so visceral and magical it belongs in a Toni Morrison novel.

tumblr_inline_o25ncoCGEf1swcezq_540

Formation’ is an homage. As Beyoncé sits in a sparse room in a corset, twirling an umbrella, pictures of her ancestors behind her, Melina has expertly woven generations together illustrating the shoulders upon which Beyoncé, Blue, and all black women stand. One of the most powerful moments is the performance scene in the middle of the home’s hallway. Beyoncé and her dancers are clothed in maroon leotards with deep necklines and dancing fiercely as Bey declares:

“I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.”

xT0BKlprdswQ2AAR1e

Amidst those walls where Bey, and crew, dance with a dominant strut are the spirits of the women who once walked those halls as servants, violently stripped of the ability to work toward any dream, let alone own it. Women who were incapable of any agency over their own bodies and sexualities. No one captures that spirit with the same poignancy as Melina who places one of the most powerful women in spaces that once existed as oppressive structures for black bodies and souls, thus, reforming the image–reclaiming power and restoring dignity to what we’ve too long been made to feel ashamed of. 

While managing to insert her signature vibrant color schemes Melina continues to push the envelope as she makes some of her boldest statements yet. As the black boy in his hoodie dances before the line of SWAT officers, and the NOLA squad car submerges, and
the graffiti demanding “stop shooting us” pans across the screen, we see Melina brilliantly tackling police brutality and the incessant violent assault on black lives and bodies. This is not solely Melina’s boldest move, it is also Beyoncé’s. For a womantumblr_o25mci3Bo51qf29nao2_500 who is so calculated  and strategic with her image Beyoncé needed a vision she could trust to handle the most controversial moment of her career with grace. Melina is who Beyoncé trusts. Time and time again these two forces prove that when combined they are nothing short of Magical.

“Ok, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

Advertisements

Who Will Tell Her Side of Her Story: A Black Woman’s Distorted Reimagining in “Dreams of a Life”.

joyce carol vincent

By 2011, most of the world had at least heard of Joyce Carol Vincent. The story of her body decomposing in her apartment for almost three years shook the world at its core–even for the brief moment that her name remained on people’s conscience. What most found alarming was the fact that this beautiful, relatively young, woman could die alone and remain neglected almost three years after passing away. When I was made aware of Vincent’s death I immediately wanted to know her story, not so much how she “ended up” like that, but who was Joyce Carol Vincent beyond the BBC article? I thought Dreams of a Life would be where I could get at least some sense of Vincent, but after almost two-hours of footage I ended the documentary with the same amount of knowledge I began it with. The biggest issue I had with the piece is the question it, inadvertently, raises about the lack of agency black women hold over their own stories even posthumously. The overall tragedy in this attempt to retell the life and final days of Vincent is that it’s perverse with over-sexualization and victimization all done through the gaze Carol Morley, a white woman.

Carol claims an affinity with Joyce:

“we were exactly the same age, we shared a name – Carol, her middle name – and at one point we even lived on the same street. Joyce lost her mother when she was 11 and I was 11 when my father died, so I felt I understood something of the loss she had suffered,”

and so she decided to “dream up Joyce’s life and ambitions through the information I gathered and the people who knew her.” The problem is, no one interviewed in the film seemed to truly know Joyce. Carol gathers up a group of individuals: two boyfriends, a landlord, co-workers, and a series of acquaintances—although you wouldn’t know that at first as you’ll spend more than half the film trying to figure out who is who in relation to Joyce, sometimes never getting any real clarity. For the most part these people appear as talking heads spewing their own speculation of who Joyce was and how it was that she “ended up” the way she did. It isn’t clear whether or not most of the interviewees spent more than five minutes with Joyce as Carol provides no clear or structured time-line.

From the very beginning of this “dream” a fixation on Joyce’s sexuality is established. A series of men rattle off how they were sexually attracted to her; we hear stories about how Vincent wore skin-tight dresses, as well as a story about how Vincent had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in her breast flying out of her dress and Vincent simply laughing. The men harbor on their desire to sleep with her and the women profess their desire to be her. There is a hint of sexual promiscuity that lingers with each interviewer as they all constantly state that when she wasn’t with her white boyfriend, Martin, there was no telling who she was with. No one delivering interviews can offer intimate details about who Joyce was; all they remember is their own imaginations of her. Insinuations of molestation—none of which are supported or confirmed—are offered by several interviewees and Carol uses flashbacks of Vincent’s father, played by (actor’s name), as a way to suggest that he was the culprit. This obsession with Joyce’s sexuality and speculated sexual abuse gets at no real heart of who Joyce was. Instead the same focus and obsession with black female sexuality is projected onto Joyce through the white gaze of Carol and her interviewees. The lack of structure, detail, or ethos in these interviews is quite disturbing and possibly done deliberately so that Carol could come in with her own plot-line and re-create a story, a life, that did not belong to her.

Nikki Giovanni, in her poem, Nikki Rosa, said that she hoped no white biographer would want to tell her story because, “they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”

One of Vincent’s “friends” emphatically states that Vincent was not into the “race thing,” as if race is some sort of fashion or genre of music not an institutionalized system that oppresses individuals based on phonemes resulting in psychological, emotional, and physical trauma not to mention the pre-determining factor on the quality of life one has immediate access to.  But how could one understand race as more than a “thing,” when one has never lived under its microscope? While race is not a subject Carol provides any depth to, she does make a deliberate segregation of the space her interviewees occupy in her documentary. Any mentions of race outside of a “thing” one can or cannot be “into,” are reduced to one liners and jokes (Joyce’s black landowner and neighbor joked about Vincent’s attraction to white men and how a cure for her flightiness would be a black man). Why hadn’t Carol probed more into the dynamics of being black, being caribbean, being woman, and being British? These multilayered experiences and identities unquestionably affected Vincent’s life whether she was into the “race thing” or not. And if Carol’s desire was to victimize her why not look at the contributing factors of racism, fetishizing, and sexism?  There is one mention of a male co-worker sexually harassing Vincent and her never returning to that job afterwards, but as quickly as it is mentioned it is dropped never to be revisited. It is obvious Vincent had troublesome experiences, there is a point in the film where Martin’s, Vincent’s long-time boyfriend,  reason for not marrying Vincent is revealed to be because he did not want “tinted children,” but the poignant and telling revelation is not explored further. It is this neglect of subtle but revealing insights into the complexities of Vincent’s identities and, instead, focus on a supposed tumultuous childhood that makes Carol the exact white biographer Nikki Giovanni feared.

Like Vincent, black women have died in obscurity. Nella Larsen, a once prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her apartment. Zora Neale Hurston, an equally prolific writer during the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her south Florida welfare home. Dorothy Dandridge, a formidable beauty, talent, and force in Hollywood, was found dead in her home. Marie Vieux-Chavuet is a brilliant black woman author many still know nothing of. The question of how Vincent, a beautiful woman who seemed to have it all, could end up dying alone is not a question, but often a reality played out for many black women. This year we’ve lost Karyn Washington (founder, creator of “For Brown Girls” ) and Titi Branch (co-founder of Miss Jessie hair products) due to suicide. Black Women’s Lives Matter and Say Her Name became almost a sub-branch of Black Live’s Matters out of a paucity of support and visibility for black women suffering, and dying, at the hands of police brutality. There is an obscurity that surround black women as they are forced to navigate a system that renders them valueless and voiceless. It is a troubling fact to experience and even more so to watch on film, especially when not handled correctly. We’ve watched the mishandling of our narratives in films like Girlhood, Suffrage (where, in the director’s world, we don’t even exist), and countless other media when we are not given agency over our lives and our stories. Filmmaker, Nikyatu Jusu, said it best in her caption of a Girlhood movie poster:

“I promise not to be bitter that it’s easier for her to make films featuring my people than it is for me.” 


For all the reasons Carol stated she felt a connection to Joyce; the trajectory of her documentary illustrates that she couldn’t be any more further from Joyce than a stranger passing her on the street.

There is an obsession of pain Carol has when it comes to examining the life of Vincent, but it is grossly misdirected. I don’t doubt that Vincent went through her share of pain, the depths and the circumstances we may never accurately know, but despite that fact it should not be the definition of her life. Carol ignores the fact that Vincent voluntarily moved into her one-bedroom flat, described as “a refuge for victims of domestic violence.” Carol does not include the fact that Vincent’s family hired a private investigator to find her and that they wrote her letters. This same family also showed up at her inquest after Vincent was confirmed to be the deceased woman in the apartment. Carol has frozen Joyce somewhere between a lonely abused child and a young sexually charged woman completely stifling Joyce as a victim whose one too many losses culminated in a tragic death. I find trouble with this dramatization of Vincent’s life because Carol allows for speculation to exist as fact. She has completely silenced the true Vincent–stolen her life and created a nightmare. At the end of Dreams of a Life I couldn’t help but feel a great disservice had been done toward Joyce Carol Vincent. I felt that her story and her body had become a vessel through which someone else appropriated for their own artistic, and even emotional, catharsis. Art is supposed to imitate life, but is an artist supposed to appropriate someone else’s life completely? A woman’s “dream” came at the expense of silencing another woman’s life, Dreams of a Life is but another footnote to that tradition.