Film & Television

Beyoncé’s Love Letter to Her Son and Her People

A hero’s journey. A celebration of African redemption. A spectacular ninety-minute music video. A glorious affirmation served up in a time of violence, hate, and social unrest. Black is King is all this, and more. Although the new film, described as a “visual album,” is arrestingly gorgeous to look at, it does raise a question . . . 

Is there anything Beyoncé Knowles-Carter can’t do?

Apparently, the answer is “No.”

To create the ambitious Black is King, Beyoncé served as writer (along with three others, according to the film’s credits, including poet Warsan Shire), director (along with several co-directors), producer (again, along with others), singer, songwriter, dancer, and — as per usual — radiant pop icon. Her concept and her signature are evident in every song and every scene. In fact, when she hands the spotlight over to other artists (including familiar American faces, as well as lesser known but tremendously talented up-and-coming Africans), you’ll catch yourself eagerly awaiting her reappearance. In the vast, breathtaking, often beautiful, but sometimes savage landscape of Black Is King, she is our touchstone. Black is king, but she is undeniably the queen.

Queen Bey, who will turn 39 in the fall, was the lead singer of bestselling “girl group” Destiny’s Child in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, she pursued a (rather uneven) acting career and released her first solo albums, which were immediate number one Billboard hits. Over the years, she’s won 23 Grammy Awards, along with dozens of others from the likes of MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, People’s Choice, American Music Awards, and the NAACP. She headlined the Super Bowl halftime show in 2013, paying tribute to historical black figures and generating a still-standing world record of tweets: 299,000 per minute. She also produced and starred in two visual albums: Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Black Is King is her third. 

For a film centered around pride of heritage, Black Is King has its own unusual history. It is a companion to Beyoncé’s 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift,” which is itself a companion to the 2019 Disney film The Lion King, which is a live-action remake of the 1994 animated movie of the same name, which, parenthetically, was also adapted for a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 1997. With that many layers of derivation (and I’m not even including the prequel, sequel, and two television series), auteur Beyoncé could be accused of simply jumping on the bandwagon of a franchise that has been extraordinarily lucrative. Black Is King might be easy to dismiss.

Until you watch it. 


It is awe-inspiring from start to finish. The film’s first scene features a baby in a rustic basket, floating down a river (not the only allusion to biblical stories and imagery) and then being mothered by Beyoncé as she sings one of many songs from “The Gift,” ‘Bigger’ …

No matter how hard it gets, you got my blood in you. 
You’re gonna rise. You’re part of something way bigger. 
You’re part of something way bigger. 
Bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than the picture they paint us to be.

The baby grows into a boy and eventually a man (named Simba and played sequentially by Folajomi ‘FJ’ Akinmurele, JD McCrary, and Nyaniso Dzedze). He faces danger and dissociation on his journey (as his animated namesake does in the original movie), finally arriving back to the bosom of his family, mirroring the lyrics of “Find Your Way Back” … 

Daddy used to take me walking down the street. 
Daddy used to take my hand, say follow me. 
Daddy used to leave me back home all the time. 
I got big enough to run around, daddy left me outside. 
He said, find your way back. Big, big world, but you got it, baby.

Narrated with soundbites from The Lion King (including the sonorous voice of James Earl Jones), Simba looks for his roots and his destiny in natural deserts and seascapes, extraterrestrial backdrops, abstract and mythic settings, urban neighborhoods, and suburban mansions. Although Beyoncé is not listed as a cinematographer (those credits go to Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, and Ryan Marie Helfant), her vision is always front and center.

Not that Bey backs away from letting others shine. Black Is King showcases African artists Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Mr Eazi, Busiswa, Salatiel, Yemi Alade, Moonchild Sanelly, Tekno, Burna Boy, and Shatta Wale, along with Black American artists like Nija, Tierra Whack, Pharrell Williams, and Childish Gambino. Black Is King is also a family affair, with contributions from husband, Jay-Z, mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, daughters Blue Ivy and Rumi, and son Sir, to whom she has dedicated the project. Beyoncé assures them, “We have always been wonderful. I see us reflected in the world’s most heavenly things. Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”

Black Is King, like all of the Lion King properties that preceded it, centers around a boy-child becoming a man. However, Beyoncé, who voiced the lioness Nala in last year’s film, infuses maternal imagery throughout. There’s also a marvelous sequence of a debutante ball, a stereotypical scene of white privilege reimagined as a ceremony for young women with skins of black and brown. As the lyrics explain in ‘Brown Skin Girl’ …

Brown skin girl
Your skin just like pearls
The best thing in the world
Never trade you for anybody else

Celebrities Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland (along with models Aweng Ade-Chuol, and Adut Akech) appear as the song continues . . .

Pose like a trophy when Naomis walk in
She need an Oscar for that pretty dark skin
Pretty like Lupita when the cameras close in
Drip broke the levee when my Kellys roll in
I think tonight she might braid her braids
Melanin too dark to throw her shade
She minds her business and wines her waist
Gold like 24k, okay

With the scope of her influence as great as any of today’s public figures, Beyoncé makes it a point to honor mothers and daughters, women and girls, even in this film about a boy who could/should be king.

One other woman who deserves awards, if not sheer adulation, for her part in Black Is King is costumer Zerina Akers. The wardrobe, which must number in the multiple hundreds of different extravagant pieces, is worthy of entry into New Zealand’s World of Wearable Art.

Beyoncé conceived her album “The Gift” while working on The Lion King a couple of years ago, and Black Is King was filmed in 2019. But, it couldn’t feel more relevant than it does right now. “We are all in search of safety and light,” the superstar recently posted on Instagram. “Many of us want change. The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant. 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 Black Is King, Beyoncé and her many collaborators offer a positive reflection of the unrelenting and heartbreaking news stories we’ve seen since June. There’s more to the Black story, she argues, than police brutality and social and economic inequality — although those issues must and hopefully, finally, will be addressed. Tragically, in the centuries since Africans were stolen and enslaved, much of their heritage was lost, their ancestors forgotten — not willfully, but as a deliberate move by their captors and a key ingredient in their subjugation. 

When it’s all said and done, I don’t even know my own native tongue. 
And if I can’t speak myself, I can’t think myself. 
And if I can’t think myself, I can’t be myself. 
And if I can’t be myself, I will never know me.
So Uncle Sam, tell me this, if I will never know me, how can you?

With Black Is King, Queen Bey urges her son and her people to remember and return to the magnificence of African roots. And she dares the rest of us to look on, in wonder.

Black Is King is available to stream on Disney +.

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