When Solange Knowles dropped her full-length video album on March 1, 2019, I watched it in awe of the way it envisioned multiple media working together to tell a story. In music videos, the addition of visuals inherently contextualizes tone, language, and lyrics, but “When I get Home” goes far beyond as an art film that combines images, dance, language, and sound, each element deepening the context of the African American experience. Watching it today, on July 4 with Black Lives Matter protests circling the National Mall less than a mile away from where I live in DC, that gravity has deepened further still.
Set in Houston, the film moves between tempos and timbres but consistently strikes a low-key undertone that commands attention and proclaims confidence: From cowboys and ghillie-suited live artworks to silver-stiletto-enwrapped interstellar women, no one has anything to prove, because they have always been as powerful as you see them here. Knowles celebrates the body, communities and individuals choreographed with an eye to the aerial view as much as the confessional, like around the 28-minute mark when she takes selfie clips to a profound new level.
Between the front-yard inflatable pools and the breathtakingly sophisticated fluid choreography staged in art galleries and rodeo arenas, the story begins to assemble itself as multi-faceted to say the least, but, bookended by scenes in the Rothko Chapel, the film grounds itself in the devastating beauty of an experience unequivocally witnessed. Whenever I visited the chapel, Mark Rothko’s 14 iconic and imposing murals—moonless blues, blacks, and violets that fade imperceptibly into one another depending on the illumination from the skylight above—gazed at me, rather than the other way around. The sense that the art sees you is perhaps why so many go to meditate in the space and find clarity.
Today, current events re-cast this film yet again, particularly the ensemble numbers where individuals link together, supporting and rippling as a joint entity not unlike those marching. George Floyd, who grew up in Houston and whose death instigated the protests going on down the street, reverberates unmistakably here as someone whose experience went unseen for too many years. That attention speaks to the nation’s shifting gaze at large. Sandra Bland had been killed in the Houston area by the time Knowles released “When I get Home”, but her name certainly didn’t echo in the way it does now when I look at this film, and the change in focus brings with it shame for America’s stubborn blindness.
Before the film turns back to Rothko Chapel, lyrics call out directions, ending with “Call me if you get lost, etc.” Repeating aurally and flashing textually in the shot, the line finally rests on the last word, “etc.” What will that Latin expression of similarity comprise, I wonder, next year?