On April 23, the world stopped. Maybe not everyone will remember where they were, what Seder verse they surreptitiously checked their phone during. But if you looked anywhere in the news cycle for the surrounding days only one thing reigned: Beyoncé.
After the release of her latest visual album, Lemonade, questions swirled—about Beyoncé, Jay Z, their marriage, their politics. Did he cheat? Did she choose to stay? Who was the other woman? Why would the Queen Bey allow for this? It was a narrative she’s chosen to largely disengage with, outside of her art. Her marriage—tied so closely to her image and herself—is hers. But the themes explored in Lemonade; of marriage, society, and women’s place in it all; those were universal.
In A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016), it’s clear those themes of self-knowledge and healing have been reverberating around women and their art for centuries. Throughout the film, writer-director Terence Davies explores Emily Dickinson’s positions on feminism, from religion to matrimony, and how her philosophies sprang from her life. These two films use similar tools to pick apart the two women’s feminist manifestos, but the conclusions, the freedom, and the stages they set for themselves are markedly different.
Both A Quiet Passion and Lemonade borrow verse as a through line for their vignettes, using the lyrical allure to guide and carry their themes. Davies from his star Emily Dickinson, Beyoncé from Warsan Shire, a young Somali British poet—all in service of better landing Davies’ and Beyoncé’s motifs. Sometimes poetry is framed narratively to establish the organic sources of their work: A Quiet Passion’s Emily conjures up “I’m Nobody, Who are you?” as a playful greeting to her newborn nephew, while Beyoncé’s grandmother is the one who taught her “nothing that’s real can be threatened,” the inspiration for her lyrics in ‘All Night.’ Largely, however, the poetry is used to string together the narrative.
Which invokes the age-old, if reignited, question of authorship: A Quiet Passion is a more traditional, writer-director, name above the credits, kind of film. Davies’ work in film is closer to that of auteur theory, which was popularized in France during the 1940s and holds that the creator is responsible for every aspect of their art. In the world of cinema, it’s a fairly celebrated point of status; the movie is a result of the director as the artistic visionary. They are more the author of the film than even the screenwriter.
Beyoncé is not giventhe same benefit of the doubt. Though hip-hop and R&B have a long tradition of clearly sampling previous works, creators are not rewarded for their recycling as in cinema. When Lemonade was released, one of the many strands of conversation was whether the visual album’s success could be truly credited to Beyoncé; she had enlisted the help of six directors in addition to herself, and featured a grand total of 72 songwriting credits. To some this was an example of her failure as an artist; she is a prolific singer, an inceptive translator and entertainer, but not a songsmith. To others it only furthered the cult of her genius.
And there is certainly genius in abundance on Lemonade, where Shire’s work brings even more gravity to Beyoncé ideas, serving as the walls of the house where Beyoncé’s wanders through the five (or, in this case, eleven) rooms of grief. As she passes from Intuition to Denial, Shire’s poem ‘For women who are ‘difficult’ to love’ provides the soundtrack to Beyoncé’s growing dissatisfaction with staying complacent with the state of her relationship. Shire’s work is woven meticulously and elegantly, carrying the viewer between stages, and carrying with it the complications of being a woman. “[I] tried to be soft, prettier. Less...awake,” Beyoncé says, invoking Shire’s love letter to women who are “strange and beautiful.” But as Shire’s poetry unfolds, it becomes clear she cannot be. And Shire’s poetry helps her express that, as well as carry her from passive participant to bat-wielding angel of chaos.
Similarly, Emily Dickinson’s poetry marks the chapters we see of her life in A Quiet Passion. Though used less transiently than Lemonade, the context for Dickinson’s poetry provides a sort of period on the scenes we see, reinforcing her emotions and politics at every point. As we watch her funeral procession, “Because I could not stop for Death” (as read by star, Cynthia Nixon) plays delicately over, carrying Emily from the screen to her final resting place: her legacy. So much of her life was devoted to her work, and in A Quiet Passion her work is used to punctuate her life, while still moving the story beyond her death.
It’s all part of Davies leaving Emily in her period, but approaching her with a 21st century sensitivity. Though its voice and style may be set firmly in the past, A Quiet Passion frequently deploys contemporary techniques to modernize the Austenian style drama, while preserving the feel of the world. We see her and her siblings as teenagers, each sitting for their own daguerreotype, before morphing into their adult actors in front of our very eyes. Channeling the audience’s awareness of present-day Civil War chronicles, Davies is able to use stylistic shorthand—statistics of the dead flashed on screen, over images of the battle fields and waving flags—in order to help the audience understand what living through the war might’ve been like for the Dickinsons. Overlain with the Dickinsons’ dialogue, modestly discussing recent events, this ‘cinematic PowerPoint’ brings such ’drawing room conversations’ into terms modern audiences can better relate to.
If that is the “quiet” part of A Quiet Passion, then Lemonade is the louder echo. Accused for years of dodging social issues publically, Beyoncé pulls no punches as she dives into her rich history as an African American woman.
Much of the art in Lemonade directly references to the African culture: traditions of the Yoruba, a Nigerian tribe, for instance appear as the Ori face-painting in ‘Sorry;’ the ankara dress she wears in the interludes at Fort Macomb; the Oshun inspired imagery of ‘Hold Up.’ She channels African spirituality in ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself,’ ‘Sorry,’ ‘Sandcastles,’ ‘Forward,’ and ‘Hold Up.’
Beyoncé incorporates that with more contemporary, American references as well: Her ankara dress, just one of the many antebellum-inspired pieces she wears, coupled with the conjuring of the ‘flying Africans’ of the Igbo Landing in the ‘Love Drought’ sequence reclaims the sights of slavery. Combined with her fiery lyrics on ‘Formation,’ declaring love for black fashion and hairstyles, Lemonade is a passionate connection between Beyoncé’s modern sensibilities to her family’s history. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Lemonade is acutely aware of this, drawing its novel presentation distinctly from the roots of the past.
Those pathways to the past aren’t all strictly historical either. Beyoncé seems intimately interested in examining the way patterns play out across generations, specifically as it relates to the women in her family. A visual motif she returns to again and again is the power, traditions, and solidarity of black women. It’s perhaps visually represented best by the eerie shot of women in a circle, their sleeves tied in knots to connect them together and bind their hands. They are all at once isolated from each other and irrevocably tangled together.
And so, after introducing the concept of Jay Z’s philandering–turning it over with denial, anger, apathy, and then emptiness–Beyoncé finally looks inward, at herself and her family. Borrowing from Shire’s ‘How to Wear Your Mother’s Lipstick,’ she turns to her own mother for advice, blurring the lines between husband and father.
Mother dearest let me inherit the Earth. Teach me how to make him beg. Let me make up for the years he made you wait. Did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? Did you get on your knees daily? Do his eyes close like doors? Are you a slave to the back of his hand? Am I talking about your husband or your father?
A Quiet Passion mirrors this matriarchal ripple by foreshadowing (if you can call historical reference in a biography such) Emily’s later reclusiveness with that of her mother. When her siblings and Father come to pick her up from Mount Holyoke, her mother has stayed behind, implicitly as she is wont to do. The “melancholy” her mother eventually describes that causes this is (or is similar to) what ultimately overwhelms Emily in the later years of her life, frustrating her and volleying her between megalomania and despondency.
Many historians believe Dickinson suffered from manic-depression, social anxiety, or some other mental illness; others believe that it might have been a poor mix of parenting and grieving. Either way, like her mother before her, Dickinson wouldn’t leave the family property for two decades. And the film links her story to her mother’s with their echoing death scenes, with similar downward spirals and high-angle shots of their bodies.
By the time Emily succumbs to her illness, she’s already holed herself in the upstairs, receiving visitors only as a detached voice, out of sight and up the stairs. Whatever drove her to reclusiveness wedges itself between her and the world, making her ashamed of her face. Though Beyoncé—possibly the most photographed woman on the planet, whose face is the size of stadiums at her concert—has a wildly different self-image, they react similarly to images of themselves in their respective films: varying shades of melancholy and power.
Both women, however, find strength in God. In A Quiet Passion Emily comments on “guarding [her] heart’s independence” from religion, making a case for her own unique observational style. She believes in God, but is not a dictionary example for a picture perfect practice, and refuses to go to church with her family. Her Protestant practice—imperfect and ambiguous as it was—is one she constantly returns to in A Quiet Passion and in her work. Likewise, in ‘Denial,’ Beyoncé shows the Bible and references it as an attempted cure to her problems. Throughout Lemonade she makes references to God that also paint what some would see as problematic, such as her reclamation of sex as “a form of worship.”
Beyoncé’s spoken word here—addressing how a crumbling relationship with a partner can change the texture of sex—is part of a more modern Beyoncé-persona, embracing her sex in her work and discussing it at length in her music. Emily Dickinson’s poetry did much of the same. Dickinson’s work includes vivid love poems and references to sexuality, although her relationships are less clear in the present day. Most of what historians can conclusively say is that she didn’t think marriage was the answer for women, period.
She was a notorious rebel for her time, never marrying either a man nor the social conventions of the time. When Emily penned her verses in the 19th century, to not get married was an inherent act of rebellion. A husband could (and, as Emily seems to believe in A Quiet Passion, would) prevent her from writing, possibly even restricting her independence further. Instead Emily opts to invest in herself, commit to poetry, and never marry. In the movie Emily notes to her sister-in-law Susan that her poetry is at least one of the fundamental reasons she’s never sought out a marriage.
“My father allows me to wake early and write,” she whispers. “A husband would never.”
In A Quiet Passion, Emily’s feminism and her disinterest in marriage are directly linked. The film is built around her bridling with aspects of being a woman in society: She argues with her brother about how he should treat his wife and whether he could cut it as a woman for even a day.
It’s a similar sentiment Lemonade makes when she incorporates a quote from Malcolm X during her Anger chapter: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."
Which is, of course, a marked difference between the times of the two women: Emily’s feminism is that of an upper-class white woman in the 19th century. Now, decades later, society has changed somewhat—or at least better understands of intersectionality. Lemonade reckons with infidelity, independence, self-knowledge, and healing, while also addressing Beyoncé’s struggles as a black woman in society, and how they may be markedly different from other women. Representation and expectations today vary drastically for white women versus women of color, similarly to the expectations of a 19th century in contrast with 21st century women.
"I know it's not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we've never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery]," actress Kerry Washington said of the ending in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). While this might’ve seemed regressive to A Quiet Passion’s protagonist, black love is still something that doesn’t get as much representation in today’s pop culture landscape making Lemonade (as either art or life) a radical statement from Beyoncé.
For her entire career Beyoncé has balanced her feminism with independence and love. She named her tour “The Mrs. Carter World Tour,” much to the bemoaning of white feminists everywhere. On her 2013 self-titled visual album, she celebrates herself as a woman, a wife, and a mother, complete with sensuality and a career. Her feminism is certainly more commercialized than Emily’s, but it’s no less personal.
And so at the end of A Quiet Passion Emily is mourned by her family, while Lemonade leaves Beyoncé finding the truth beneath the lies, moving past hurt and into formation. Where one woman’s source of creative drive came from examining and celebrating her marriage, another’s came from rejection of the concept.
For better or worse, Davies chooses to leave Emily and her family very much as they are. He instills no judgement in hindsight, no 21st century morality test. They are as they were thought to be. Beyoncé, meanwhile, is less content to stay in her times. Though very much a byproduct of her period, her awareness and mastery of optics, intersectionality, and art very much on display in Lemonade, the film’s work as a parable pushes her story forward. She doesn’t simply end on reconciliation, she gets in formation, reconnecting the personal to the political and asking her fellow women to do the same. Like Emily, her legacy will likely be carried on beyond her death. Who knows who will echo it next.