Editor’s Note: If you would like to see the music video for Beyoncé’s “Formation,” you can click here.
In 2005 of August, Hurricane Katrina forced around 1.5 million people to evacuate and around 700 people are still missing today. Recovery for this incident took years and many citizens have not recovered financially. Many believe that the government neglected the citizens which led to frustration all over the country. “Formation” is featured on the album Lemonade by Beyonce Knowles, a singer known internationally and 22-time Grammy award winner. In “Formation,” Knowles touches on current social issues revolving around racism in the African American community. “Formation” brings awareness to issues such as this hurricane to educate and embrace the strength throughout these hard situations. Each scene is important as the music video takes place in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The video was released in December 2016, after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Trayvon Martin case, the Michael Gray case, the Sandra Bland case, etc. The public reaction to Beyonce’s music video was both positive and negative depending on the viewer. The intended audience was the African American community although many of the themes discussed can be used to educate other ethnic groups. The video was labeled as controversial especially for Knowles. Her music had not specifically touched on politics, so this came as a surprise to many. Some of her white audience went ahead and started the hashtag “#BoycottBeyonce” because of her interest in ending police brutality against the African American community. The media claims “Formation” is controversial. However, I believe the setting in New Orleans, references, and characters contribute to the videos homage to African American culture, specifically police brutality ultimately giving a voice to the community.
It is obvious that filming in New Orleans was a statement to bring awareness to damage left behind after the flooding was contained. This natural disaster was considered one the biggest evacuations for Americans but at the time it was questioned if President Bush and his troops did all they could to rescue and restore the city. Evidence reveals that “For years, the Army Corps of Engineers has asked for more money for New Orleans and not received it” and Katrina was categorized as a Category 4 hurricane but the tools in place were only fit for a Category 3 (Gegax). “Formation” opens with Beyonce sitting on a police car in a flooded neighborhood with dilapidated houses in the background. This image evokes all of the pain associated with the homes, the belongings, and people lost in the hurricane. Many people consider Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts as subpar and as neglected by our own Commander in Chief who at the time was juggling fighting a war in Iraq and an untimely natural disaster. Unfortunately, the areas affected the most were poor and predominantly black, so it was even harder to get back on their feet because they lacked stability before the hurricane. In an article, the author writes that some hurricane survivors were evacuated to the Superdome. Conditions were terrible as the air conditioning and lights were cut off, and eventually the water was cut off which left toilets overflowed. People hadn’t showered in days and bottled water was scarce (Gegax). Knowles addresses the elephant in the room: Katrina’s recovery was inefficient. However, this was not strictly to spark controversy; it was to embrace all the shortcomings in impoverished black neighbors and how it is dealt with. The opening image of “Formation” is Knowles sitting on top of a flooded police car. Obviously New Orleans isn’t still under water, and this image gives the impression that the damage is still there which is true. Houses aren’t necessarily flooded but neighborhoods that were promised to be rebuilt years ago are still damaged. This connects to many broken promises the government feeds citizens of low economic status and also a promise that police officers are to protect and serve the community when in fact many have neglected their power.
Knowles includes parallels in her music video to symbolize the effects of racism in predominantly black communities. The camera pans from a boy biting onto a flashing mouth piece to the flashing lights of an ambulance in a dark neighborhood. A child rides their bike past the truck as if it were normal for an ambulance to be in their neighborhood in the middle of the night. To me, this symbolizes that violence is engraved in everyday life of low-income neighborhoods. It is almost as if their surroundings stripped them from their innocence as children. Later, a quick flash of a wall had “stop shooting us” graffiti on it. This leads to the young-boy-in-all-black’s dance number in front of a line of armed police officers. He dances and eventually put his hands up in surrender and the officers mimic him and do the same. Knowles has even said herself that the music video for “Formation” was taken out of context. In an interview with Elle Magazine she states “I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let’s be clear. I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things” (Harris). Never once did Knowles depict anything negative about police officers or ridicule the authorities in charge of Katrina’s damage. Her message was uplifting in spite of the circumstances and she didn’t allow people who neglected the issue to sweep it under the rug and people who weren’t a part of it to forget.
Kevin Ball describes the background dancers in the video with “Different black hairstyles…from the ‘nappy afro’ and ‘afro’ extolled in its chorus, to the extensions, perms, and cornrows that we see across various forms its various scenes. These black styles are represented in a non-judgmental way, celebrated”. Actresses seen within the video represented black women empowerment by including all skin tones and hair types and styles. It unifies women especially in this age when black women are often decreased to a stereotype or when people only include a specific group of black women. Every outfit Knowles and her backup dancers were seen in was designer. It may be overlooked but it is rare for backup dancers to be wearing the same style and brand in every scene as the main character, and this also symbolizes strength and equality within a group of black women.
The media responded to the music video by claiming it was controversial because the topic of police brutality and Hurricane Katrina is sensitive. Many people who claimed this were predominately white, uneducated, or misinterpreted Beyoncé Knowles’ message. The hashtag “#BoycottBeyonce” surfaced because of her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and her “Formation” performance at the Super Bowl. This performance sparked even more controversy than the music video because her and her backup dancers were dressed like Black Panther Party members. This group believes in equality and specifically stood up against police brutality. They have been known to encourage self-defense during protests and were often arrested for their radical objections toward police officers. Meanwhile this group has constantly given back to the community and supported people in need. The only controversy Knowles sparked is an argument that was started long ago before “Formation.” She believes in protecting basic civil rights and continuing the fight her ancestors had fought for her right as a successful black woman in society with a voice. Some even link her “Formation” video as inspiration to Colin Kaepernick’s movement to take a knee during the national anthem. She responded by selling t-shirts on her tour reading “Boycott Beyonce”. To me, it appears that her intentions are positive and the powerful symbols she uses are a sign of respect. I think, because of her mother’s heritage in Louisiana, Knowles imagines herself as a victim of police brutality or Hurricane Katrina. If she never became famous this could have easily been her or family. “Formation” gives life to the families who are behind the sad stories we see on the news. The audience sees young women and men of the city in Knowles perspective and it provokes an awakening feeling when a face is attached to it.
Beyoncé used her platform in order to call attention to social issues within the black community that were important to her. In “Formation,” she addresses racism, police brutality, poverty, and violence all while embracing black women, people lost in Hurricane Katrina, victims of violence, New Orleans culture, and its flaws. Many considered this music video as an anti-police piece and a topic to shake the table but in my opinion the purpose is clear. “Formation” is an empowering song for the black community specifically New Orleans because it shows how they overcame obstacles even though their own government and police force seemed to constantly create new ones. The lyrics repeat “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it/ Cause I slay, I slay, I slay, I slay” (“Formation”). It is purely a word of encouragement to uplift people through tough situations. Beyonce acknowledges the damage done by Hurricane Katrina, validates the frustration of the citizens, and uses her platform to spread awareness and give thanks to her backgrounds in Louisiana.
Ball, Kevin. “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation.’” Film Criticism, vol. 40, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 1–3. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3998/fc.13761232.0040.309.
“Beyonce – Formation” Youtube, uploaded by Beyonce, 9 Dec 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ.
Gegax, T.Trent, et al. “THE LOST CITY. (Cover Story).” Newsweek, vol. 146, no. 11, Sept.2005, pp.42–52. EBSCOhost.
Harris-Perry, Melissa. “Beyoncé.” Time, vol. 188, no. 25–26, Dec. 2016, pp. 124–128. EBSCOhost.