'Black Is King' Film Review: How Beyoncé Gave Disney the Recipe for Lemonade
When it comes to a project like Disney's Black Is King, officially subtitled 'A Film by Beyoncé', context is important. The film, or "visual album", is set to music curated by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter for the album 'The Lion King: The Gift', a record released alongside Disney's 2019 remake of the animated classic to relatively little noise. 'The Gift', named after The Lion King's Nala (whom Beyoncé voiced in the remake), was executive produced by Queen Bey as a "love letter to Africa", as "sonic cinema" which hoped to re-tell the iconic story through new music.
In an effort to introduce authentic African music to western audiences, Beyoncé teamed up with various African musicians for 'The Gift' including Shatta Wale, Burna Boy, Salatiel, Tiwa Savage, Mr Eazi and Busiswa. This globe-spanning creation process was detailed in the 2019 television documentary Beyoncé Presents: Making The Gift which aired after the album's release - assumedly as part of Disney's failed Oscar campaign for Beyoncé's gospel hit 'Spirit', which debuted in the The [new] Lion King. While The Lion King failed to earn Beyoncé and 'Spirit' any awards, and while 'The Gift' failed to attract much attention (beyond short-lived viral praise for the Blue Ivy Carter-penned track 'Brown Skin Girl'), the Queen has decided the album deserves a little more time in the limelight - enter, Black Is King.
In a rare message to her audience (delivered via Instagram), Beyoncé revealed her intentions behind Black is King alongside a trailer for the project: “Black Is King is a labor of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year. I’ve given it my all and now it’s yours. It was originally filmed as a companion piece to “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack and meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry. I could never have imagined that a year later, all the hard work that went into this production would serve a greater purpose.
The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey. We are all in search of safety and light. Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books. With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.
I spent a lot of time exploring and absorbing the lessons of past generations and the rich history of different African customs. While working on this film, there were moments where I’ve felt overwhelmed, like many others on my creative team, but it was important to create a film that instills pride and knowledge. I only hope that from watching, you leave feeling inspired to continue building a legacy that impacts the world in an immeasurable way. I pray that everyone sees the beauty and resilience of our people. This is a story of how the people left MOST BROKEN have EXTRAORDINARY gifts."
It's true that Beyoncé's timing with Black Is King simply couldn't be more perfect. Not only has the Black Lives Matter movement (now officially the largest civil rights movement in global history) experienced a visceral resurgence following the murder of George Floyd by U.S. Police Officers earlier this year, but the film arrives amidst a media-drought induced by the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in modern history, cinemas have closed their doors and streaming services are relying almost exclusively on old content. The music industry has been similarly affected, with artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa forced to release animated alternatives to the music videos they'd have preferred. Black Is King, then, provides much needed nourishment; film fans will drool over the film's gorgeous visuals, while music lovers can once-more feast on high-budget, intensely choreographed and live-action music video experiences.
So - what exactly is a visual album? Members of the Beyhive will be closely acquainted with the term. Beyoncé's first foray into the genre came with 2006's B'day Anthology Video Album, a project which saw her release a music video for every track featured on her second studio album (think 'Check On It', 'Irreplaceable' and 'Deja Vu'). 2013's BEYONCÉ - her second visual album - made history when it surprise-dropped on iTunes one mid-December night. Videos like 'Partition', 'Drunk in Love' and 'Blow' became instantly iconic, and Beyoncé indicated that - moving forward - she would be adhering to the visual album format when it comes to her mainline releases.
LEMONADE, released in 2016, was perhaps her magnum opus; the film combined music with film and poetry to detail Beyoncé's experiences with marital infidelity and Black womanhood. Black Is King follows a similar recipe to LEMONADE, and those tuning into the film expecting a traditional dialogue-led narrative should take note. Black Is King is essentially a collection of music videos, linked by spoken word and abstract film sequences which attempt to inspire, uplift and spotlight the Black diaspora. I don't think this project is quite as delicately constructed as LEMONADE, which went on to win a Peabody Award, but what it lacks in sophistication Black Is King makes up for in fun and accessibility. The film seeks to prove that Black art doesn't have to be rooted in trauma for it to be deemed worthwhile, and in doing so Black Is King invites all audiences - the young and old, the Black and non-Black - to revel in and learn from its magic.
I'm aware that, as a white British man, I'm not exactly qualified to unpack the cultures, imagery and discussions that feature within Black Is King; it is for this reason that I have linked a few different reviews and videos concerning the film from Black critics at the end of this article which I found interesting and informative. What I will say is that I think Black Is King seems to have three distinct purposes; to redefine Black manhood through the metaphor of kingship, to emphasize the value and beauty of Black women, and to re-establish Blackness in mainstream media as spiritually, culturally and materially rich.
It is this latter desire which seems to have provoked Black Is King's most potent criticism. As more and more people become aware of the inherent links between capitalism and white supremacy, some have critiqued Beyoncé (who is worth around 400 million dollars and is married to a billionaire) for linking themes of Black empowerment with hierarchical monarchy. While these critiques are certainly valid, I would suggest that, within the context of the film as a re-imagining of The Lion King, Beyoncé doesn't exactly have the opportunity within this particular project to stray from royal themes.
What Black Is King does manage to do, however, is present kingship as a spiritual metaphor; if anything, wealth is openly disputed as a valid path to spiritual stability in the 'Mood 4 Eva' portion of the film, which parallels Timon and Pumba's "hakuna matata" mentality with a Busby Berkely-style show of riches. Black Is King tries to redefine kingship not as a divine right to power but as a status of accountable responsibility. In one spoken word segment, a name-less woman suggests "the royalty in you is there for you to be a blessing to others, for you to leave a legacy that others can look to to find hope, to find strength, to find healing as well." This, she declares, is the "African way".
Though spiritually unfulfilling for our young 'Simba', the 'Mood 4 Eva' lifestyle proves exquisitely entertaining and is perhaps the highlight of Black Is King. It's biggest competitor is the 'Brown Skin Girl' video, which takes place amidst a fantastical debutante ball. While 'Mood 4 Eva' made me laugh (as a welcome break from the self-serious 'Queen' persona Beyoncé adopts throughout the film), 'Brown Skin Girl' quickly brought me to tears. This segment is visually reminiscent of LEMONADE, which also paid homage to various elements of Black, southern American culture, and features a variety of celebrity cameos including Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong'o and Beyoncé's former band-mate Kelly Rowland. The video culminates in a swelling final chorus, featuring (if I'm not mistaken) additional ad-libs and vocal layerings from the video's featured celebs. The rousing moment is, admittedly, a little out of place in the wider Lion King narrative, but it's tender, beautiful and feels right at home amidst Disney+'s princess catalog.
While fans of Beyoncé's more traditional ballads will be well-pleased with 'Bigger' and 'Spirit', the film's most interesting moment comes with 'Otherside'. The song, which ponders death and the afterlife, plays over the image of Beyoncé placing her child in a wicker basket - Moses-style - on the riverbed. As the song swells and the rapids worsen, it becomes apparent that Beyoncé's child won't survive the journey and the basket plunges beneath the water. The sequence is probably Black Is King's most abstract, allowing for multiple interpretations; online, 'Otherside' has so far been read as a simple reference to the Moses story (another African king), as a metaphor for Beyoncé's miscarriages and as an homage to the many Africans who drowned in the Middle Passage after being enslaved by Colonial forces.
Black Is King is also packed with mid and up-tempo romps that delight in spotlighting African talent. Ghana's Shatta Wale shines on 'Already' - a Major Lazer produced 'yoncé track that's visual has been uploaded to YouTube to promote the film. The ferocious track 'My Power' also introduced me to unfamiliar faces within Beyoncé's familiar brand of [Black] female empowerment; Busiswa (South Africa), Moonchild Sanelly (South Africa) and Yemi Alade (Nigeria) join Tierra Whack (America) in the monochromatic, intense visual. Cameroon's Salatiel also appears alongside Beyoncé within the segment set to their dance track 'Water'. 'The Lion King: The Gift' excels in its unification of these artists (all of whom have huge followings on the continent) with western superstars like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, JAY-Z and Pharrell. By including almost all of the album's featured stars within the film, Black Is King delivers a strong and powerful vision of Pan-African excellence - the film doesn't just stand tall as a regal and united front, it dances as one.
Black Is King may not quench those thirsty for a genuine racial revolution - this is a mainstream Disney film, after all - but this film's accomplishments cannot be understated, especially in the context of Hollywood. The film isn't perfect, and the absence of a strong narrative through-line occasionally renders it confusing, but Black Is King offers essential counter-programming for those who's perception of Africa remains clouded by BandAid. Positioned on Disney+, this project should firmly instill within its young audience that Africa (and Blackness in general) deserves respect, appreciation and admiration. Put bluntly, Black Is King is whimsy enough for kids, edgy enough for teens and certainly impressive enough for older adults to enjoy - we simply haven't seen a musician operate at this level since the days of Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé isn't showing any signs of slowing down soon.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy Awards are - for one year only - allowing streaming films to be submitted; how ironic would it be if, after failing to gain even a nomination with The Lion King, Beyoncé's Black is King sees her finally take home the gold? While that question must certainly be on Knowles-Carter's mind this week (especially after earning universal critical acclaim with the release of this project) her fans will be thinking further ahead. With Queen Bey at the height of her artistic powers we can only wonder how she'll top herself next. Considering that Homecoming was only the first in a three-picture Netflix deal, I suppose we wont have too long to wait...
Written by James Green
Black voices on Black Is King: