Renaissance, A Film by Beyoncé
Ok. Hear me out.
I promise I will get around to reviewing Renaissance, a Film by Beyoncé, but first, I need to talk about Barbie. I imagine many of you are tired of hearing about Barbie, the film released earlier this year and directed by Greta Gerwig. I also imagine that many of you haven’t seen it yet. And you really should. All of you, I assume, have at least one female in your life, whether that’s a mother, wife, sister, daughter, coworker, neighbor, or parishioner. The film Barbie has a lot of ideas, both implicit and explicit, humorous and profound, that will help you navigate your relationships with those women. Debra Rienstra has already insightfully and carefully written about the film for the Reformed Journal, which you can read here; I don’t need to repeat any of her brilliant ideas. But I will add to what she wrote. (I promise I’m getting to Beyoncé.)
In her review of the film, Rienstra writes that Barbie is a good entry-level introduction to feminism. She writes,
But you, especially, young women, should go see this movie. Will it tell you everything you need to know about women’s history and feminism and the experience of being women today? No, it will not. But there are a couple moments in it where you really, really need to feel your feelings. This is entry-level stuff, but it’s important.
I think that’s a fairly accurate observation of the film. I, for one, definitely felt all of the feelings–feelings like anger over patriarchy that perpetuates, sadness over the difficulties women face, and heartache over the depth and width of emotions that other people and situations evoke. I’ve cried both times I’ve seen the movie; so has my mom. The film also provided new, more concise language about my experiences as a modern woman. Yet, I have to wonder why, in the year 2023, we need entry-level feminism. I thought the ideas and concepts of feminism and the feminist movement I learned in the late 1980s as a high school student wouldn’t need a re-introduction in 2023. But here we are. Here we are in a time and space where it seems like we have reverted decades in both women’s rights and healthy relationships without learning some important lessons. Some days, in fact, being a woman feels hard. Really hard. As the character Gloria (played by America Ferrera) says during her powerful monologue in Barbie, “It is literally impossible to be a woman…It’s too hard.”
During the weeks of the fullness of Advent and preparing for Christmas, a season when I spend a lot of time thinking about Mary and what she experienced as the mother of our Savior, I saw Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé. My friend Tiffany loves Beyoncé. I mean, she really loves Beyoncé. So, for her birthday, 21 people (aged 30-56, mostly couples) descended on one of our local theaters, all decked out in glitter and sequins (similar to how my family–including my husband–dressed in pink to go and see Barbie). We were a sight to behold. If you haven’t yet, find a friend who loves something so much that the friend can rally a middle-aged group of people–women and men–to dress up in disco sequins on a Friday night to celebrate you by experiencing a thing you love. That is a sacred image of beautiful relationships.
I am no stranger to Beyoncé and her work–I have seen her in concert, and her film Black is King (2020) moved me to tears multiple times. But I am not an expert. Going into the theater, I wasn’t sure if the film was a documentary of her Renaissance tour or a concert film for those who couldn’t get tickets to see the tour live. Honestly, I didn’t care much one way or the other. I just needed to do something fun. I needed to celebrate my friend by doing something important to her. I needed a moment of beauty, of art, of creativity. Beyoncé certainly delivered all of this. Yet, if I have a critique of the film, it’s that the film itself doesn’t quite know what it is–not quite a documentary, not quite a concert film. But that didn’t detract from my experience at all. Having the curtain pulled back, even just a little bit, to see the creative process behind the spectacular production is a powerful experience. What Beyoncé and her team pull off in creating a world tour like Renaissance is incredible. She truly creates culture through her music, the costumes and dances accompanying her music, and the myriad ways she cultivates and promotes young, often underground, talent.
At one point in the film, Beyoncé inserts a voiceover during a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the tour and comments, “Being a black woman, the way people communicate with you is different. Everything is a fight. It’s almost like a battle of wills…” My immediate thought was, “It is literally impossible to be a woman.” It is literally impossible to be a woman if Beyoncé, one of the most successful businesswomen in the world, says, “I’m constantly repeating myself.” I realized that I was watching the fictionalized story Barbie play out in real life in the story of how Beyoncé created this spectacular concert experience. And if Beyoncé constantly has to fight and repeat herself, what chance do I, as a white, middle-aged wife and mother with privilege, have to use my voice, privilege, and power? Beyoncé has achieved incredible things as a creative artist. In the film, we watch the work she puts into her craft and the toll her work takes on her body. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What chance do I have to exercise my creative voice?” We, the audience, could see the cost it takes on her mentally, emotionally, and physically to constantly have to fight for, and repeat, to achieve her creative vision. Indeed, it all feels really hard.
I couldn’t help but watch Renaissance, a Film by Beyoncé through the lens of Barbie. The similar themes can’t be ignored. And even though Renaissance is three hours long, I wanted more. I would have loved this film if it had been a concert film like Taylor Swift’s Era film. But I needed to hear Beyoncé voice her difficulties, her dreams, her disappointments, and her desire to make the world a more beautiful and safe place for everyone. No, it isn’t clear that the creators of Renaissance had a singular, clear vision for the film. There were a number of themes and ideas that weren’t clearly tied together. It wasn’t clear whether the film was a concert film or a documentary. In the end, that didn’t hinder my experience at all. The gift, for me, was that I got a glimpse of a strong, successful (by the world’s standards) woman struggling with the same things that I struggle with. Honestly, that paralyzed me for a minute. But if Beyoncé can keep fighting and repeating herself, so can I.