Why Didn’t Race Come Up in Beyoncé’s HBO Documentary?

There was one topic Beyoncu00e9 never discussed in her documentary.

By Jorge Rivas Feb 22, 2013

Beyoncé’s documercial, "Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream," attracted 1.8?million viewers to HBO for its Saturday 9?p.m. premiere, Nielsen said Tuesday. Beyoncé served as the film’s star, executive producer, narrator, co-writer and co-director. She’s even in the credits for ‘additional camera’ because much of the film was shot using the webcam on her laptop.

All that is to say: Beyoncé had total control of what we saw in the film. There were a few moments when she got personal, she talked about breaking up her business relationship with her father and what it took for her to become a woman who can demand things from the people she works with. She also spoke about a miscarriage.

But there was one topic she never discussed.

Jody Rosen, over at The New Yorker’s "Culture Desk" asks why "Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream" ignored race.

Still, there’s no question that Beyoncé is a terrible judge of what is interesting about Beyoncé. Consider one topic that never comes up in "Life Is But a Dream": race. You could make the case that Beyoncé has reached an unprecedented position in American life. She is a black woman who has claimed the mantles of America’s Sweetheart, National Bombshell, and Entertainer-in-Chief. (According to Nielsen, an audience of 1.8 million watched Saturday’s broadcast of "Life Is But a Dream," a record for an HBO documentary, and three times the average rating for the network’s marquee show, Lena Dunham’s "Girls.") Beyoncé is one half of an African-American royal couple rivaled only by the duo in the White House. She is by far the "blackest"–musically and aesthetically–of all the post-Madonna pop divas; she represents African-American women’s anger and power like no one in popular culture since Aretha Franklin. Of course, the privilege to ignore race altogether is a sign of Beyoncé’s queenly status, and in "Life Is But a Dream" she avails herself of it. Instead, we get bromides: "We’re all going through these problems," she says. "We all have the same insecurities."

The hot air never stops blowing in "Life Is But a Dream." There’s a funny thing about Beyoncé, though: the dreck that she serves up when seated on the interviewee’s couch, clutching a throw pillow, is transfigured, when she strides the stage, into art. In the film, she talks endlessly, excruciatingly, about money and power and ambition and self-reliance and womanhood and her love for her husband and child and, um, "the journey of my life." It is a torrent of banalities. But those are the themes of Beyoncé’s music–the very topics that she compresses into the three minutes and thirty-three seconds of "Countdown," a recording that will be confounding and electrifying musicologists, feminists, African-American studies scholars, and, most importantly, dance-floor revelers long after the last "Life Is But a Dream" DVD has been shot into space, destined for a Martian landfill. Listen to Beyoncé’s songs; watch her cyclonic performances. Everything else is like those cameras: additional, and superfluous.

"Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream" resulted in the the biggest audience for an HBO documentary in a decade. Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary, "When the Levees Broke," that looked at the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is the only documentary to come close with 1.7 million viewers.