- Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé by Beyoncé Knowles and Ed Burke
Beyoncé’s history-making appearance at the 2018 Coachella music festival was about spectacle—in particular, about seizing the right to star at the center of it. But Homecoming, the Netflix film that documents making of her two Coachella concerts, is not just about the carefully honed image of a pop superstar but also the idea of the university community. Homecoming sets Beyonce’s image against the backdrop of the HBCU, and explores the kinds of campus culture that HBCUs have the power to foster. In this regard, it is both a provocation and a rarity: It chronicles a vital strain of university life that is usually deemphasized and viewed as simply a complement to sports and football, and it reenacts the historical spectacle of that culture in the service of bringing it to mass audiences.
In an immediate sense, I’m referring to the culture of marching bands, drum lines, majorettes, step teams, and the like—that is, all of the attendant features of the “ritual,” as the film repeatedly calls it, that is HBCU college football, minus the actual football. But the history of African American campus culture (some of the most recognizable features of which were, incidentally, introduced by Kwame Nkrumah) extends into deeper thematic territory in the film, with one of Beyoncé’s costumes featuring the letters BΔK (a play on her own initials, but with a nod to [End Page 348] Greek-named fraternities and sororities) and signaling her self-authorized induction into a milieu that she admittedly declined to join.
She explains early in the film that Destiny’s Child, the singing group she was in from age nine in 1990 (when it was called Girl’s Tyme) through 2006, “was my college, my college was traveling around the world and life was my teacher” (18:50). It’s a comment that celebrates, on the one hand, the cherished American mythos of self-making, à la the “School of Hard Knocks.” At the same time, it provides some context and explanation: Like many Americans, Beyoncé never attended college, but that did not prevent her from feeling drawn to the idea of the American university as a spectator, if not perhaps as a participant. That idea of spectatorship, as the film goes on to demonstrate, grows out of the incubation of unique cultural forms that lend definitive shape to the college experience and thus nurture the specific kinds of communities whose spirit and energy Beyoncé laments having missed. Homecoming foregrounds the history of these communities for Netflix audiences who may know little about HBCUs while also drawing attention, in very subtle ways (this is a festival, after all), to some of the problems that continue to plague them today.
Over the past few decades, the subject of institutional endowments has been an increasingly crucial one for most American colleges and universities. Concerns about inbuilt as opposed to tuition-generated capital have grown along with the pre-pandemic demand for more lavish campus facilities, on the one hand, and declining revenue from other sources, including state funding, on the other. As sources like Bloomberg report, the endowments of even the most well-funded HBCUs amount to a mere fraction of those enjoyed by their Ivy League and other private peers. This situation leaves HBCUs with fewer options for investing and growing their comparably meager endowments, and thus fewer resources over the long term. To that end, Beyoncé’s Homecoming serves the dual purpose of strategically highlighting this more neglected sector of American university education. Shortly after Homecoming premiered on Netflix, Beyoncé announced a scholarship program that would award $25,000 scholarships to individual students at four HBCUs (Xavier, Wilberforce, Tuskegee, and Bethune-Cookman) for the 2018-19 academic year.
The aesthetics of the film, meanwhile, gesture insistently toward the collaborative qualities of Beyoncé’s onstage performances and to the very fact of her celebrity as well. While much of the live show relies on luridly colored, professional Steadicam footage, there are also sections that appear grainy and...