Photo: Parkwood Entertainment (Netflix)
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“When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.” Though she chuckles warmly at her joke, there is a quiet power couched in Beyoncé’s mission for her historic 2018 festival set, stated roughly 32 minutes into the Netflix documentary Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé. The idea of carving out a space at the largest music event of the year—one that is not-so-secretly consumed by a predominately white audience—to unabashedly celebrate black culture might ring as too ambitious of an undertaking for most to seriously entertain. But as we witness throughout this vibrant documentary, the journey isn’t exactly for the faint of heart and can be an upward climb for even the most time-tested of legends among us.

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To be clear, Homecoming is not your standard concert film by any stretch. Intermittently dispersed between long, seamlessly melded shots of her two headlining weekends in Coachella Valley are intimate behind-the-scenes glances chronicling a months-long conceptualization and rehearsal process. The inspiration for her performance, we quickly learn, stems from her unfulfilled desire to attend and experience an HBCU, a dream ultimately hindered by early success. “My college was Destiny’s Child,” Beyoncé explains in a voice-over, which is simultaneously a stellar flex and a gently heartbreaking reminder of her long-term, devoted relationship with sacrifice. In fact, she takes great care to specify a few things she’s had to forfeit in order to maintain her career and, in particular, her Coachella set—like quality time with her newborn twins Rumi and Sir, as well as the joys of even modest amounts of sugar and carbs. While it’s nothing that is particularly surprising—even those with passing knowledge of Queen Bey understand that she is one of the hardest-working entertainers on the planet—the reminders successfully tug away at a veil that has long outfitted an “effortless”-looking career. It is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that her talent is simply an innate part of her essence while forgetting the toil and perseverance it took for her to reach this point.

While she speaks frankly of the winding, bumpy road to Coachella—a milestone that was temporarily delayed due to her pregnancy in 2017—it can be, at times, surprising to remember that we are receiving such candid insight from a figure who is so famously private. With few interviews under her belt and a heavily controlled, light social media presence, we are not privy to many details surrounding her civilian life outside of her work. Hell, we rarely receive details about her work. (Speaking of best-kept secrets, have you checked out Homecoming: The Live Album yet?) In Homecoming, however, she opens up about the twins’ difficult childbirth and the toll it took on her body and spirit, which may be new details to anyone who hasn’t had the chance to check out her essay in Vogue.

But what does resonate is her honesty regarding her once deeply shaken confidence toward her body image and her ability to do her job. For someone who has largely existed in our collective imagination as a paragon of self-assurance and competence, it’s an indispensable moment that truly humanizes her. She shares:

“There were days when I thought that I’d never be the same physically, my strength and endurance would never be the same. And you know, a lot of the choreography is about feeling, so it’s not as technical; it’s your own personality that brings it to life. That’s hard when you don’t feel like yourself.”

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While her experience with self-doubt isn’t something that we should callously label as a source of “relief” or “comfort,” we can recognize how often these personal moments of uncertainty echo among us. It would have been so simple to glaze over that reality with platitudes about patience and hard work. Such enlightenment regarding her own inner demons added dimension and a beating heart to her story.

It should be said—not unkindly—that there is never a waning doubt that this is Beyoncé’s film. This is not an inherently negative thing, but a fair indication that we as an audience are only going to be granted so much access to her bubble of privacy. Though we are limited to a few less-than-glamorous creative struggles intermingled with precious familial moments (including Blue Ivy Carter’s angelic voice singing “Lift Every Voice And Sing”), it never reaches a point that feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. As a filmmaker, Beyoncé trades surface drama for an opportunity to center on black identity, history, and representation within art. Furnished with wisdom from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Marian Wright Edelman, and Danai Gurira, Homecoming doesn’t lose sight of the grander picture in favor of the superstar. After all, Beyoncé was the first-ever black woman to headline the then-19-year-old festival, and that fact alone warrants a deep understanding of just why race and identity are such intricately webbed components of art and entertainment. Much like the icon’s relationship with the public, the documentary strikes a healthy balance between reflection and education.

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The end result is an emphatic culmination of professionalism, determination, a killer team, and months of painstaking labor. During its time, Beychella not only had fans globally rocking to Beyoncé’s extensive catalog of hits (at 2 a.m., for some); it forever shifted the general public’s expectations of Coachella headliners by irrevocably raising the bar. Homecoming is an emotional reminder that Beyoncé accomplished this with a robust and, more importantly, intentional celebration of blackness.