Beyoncé’s nearly 20-year journey in film is as much a testimony to her tenacity as her formidable catalogue in music. Her work in the two fields grows a little more challenging at each turn. While she blossomed as a songwriter during her stint as leader of Destiny’s Child and came out of it as the premier contemporary R&B artist of the 2000s, she took quirky film roles starring alongside comedy icons Steve Martin and Mike Myers in The Pink Panther and Austin Powers: Goldmember. In the mid-aughts, Cadillac Records, The Fighting Temptations, and Dreamgirls posited Bey as a multi-hyphenate actor-slash-performer in the style of Whitney Houston, but, lacking a blockbuster like 1992’s Oscar- and Grammy-winning The Bodyguard (critically reviled though that movie might have been in its time), Beyoncé’s early films seemed like obligatory star-making gestures, less like parallels to the movies of multimedia double threats like Madonna and Dolly Parton and more like peers to the works of Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake, musicians whose early film endeavors were hit or miss, relaying an eagerness to branch out of music sometimes lacking in good taste. For every memorable turn in Selena or The Social Network, there was Gigli or The Love Guru or Jersey Girl or Yogi Bear. Beyoncé’s role in the 2009 stalker drama Obsessed, in which she kills Ali Larter’s character in a fight sequence frankly funnier than any of her official comedic performances, did not help matters.
In the past decade, experiments Beyoncé did with the music-video format — alongside Kanye West, whose My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album was heralded by the fantastical short film Runaway — have shifted the standard for pop-star video excursions, looking to monocultural audio- visual events like the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, Prince’s Purple Rain, and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker for tips in spinning storytelling and performance into a unified narrative thread. Her surprise 2013 self-titled visual album laid important groundwork that she would build upon in 2016’s HBO film Lemonade, which recounts the story of an apparent near miss with divorce but works on secondary levels as a celebration of Black womanhood and a dive into the knotty history and iconography of the South. (Props to Life Is But a Dream, a chronicle of her 4 album and tour and her difficult first pregnancy, and Homecoming, which details the making and execution of Bey’s 2018 headlining Coachella performance, but those are documentaries and more of a testament to Beyoncé the archivist rather than the ambitious storyteller we’re lauding today.) This year’s Black Is King, a full-length film that uses last year’s The Lion King: The Gift as its soundtrack and source text, is the culmination of everything Beyoncé has learned in film since breaking out in Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
Black Is King blurs the lines between film, music video, photography, poetry, and nature documentary in its exploration of the themes of The Gift, elevating what, last year, looked like a promotional tie-in selling Bey’s appearance as Nala in Disney’s odd photorealistic Lion King remake into a stand-alone experience of its own, whose plot points, insofar as they can be understood as such, dovetail sparingly with the most dramatic turns in Simba’s hero’s journey but otherwise seem refreshingly uninterested in telling that story again. Here, there is also a king in exile seeking a restoration to greatness. But this time, the king is you, the viewer — and/or the Black diaspora spread out over the globe and poignantly lacking, as the film suggests overtly and covertly, a close connection to the millennia of African history from which we are descended. Black Is King is a full immersion in that beauty, guided by African artists, actors, and dancers, honoring African fashion, music, and spirituality. We’ve seen this move play out before, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, when the American entertainment industry took great interest in South African apartheid and responded with films like Cry Freedom and The Power of One and albums like Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City and Paul Simon’s Graceland. But those were Anglo-American works often lacking an authoritative African or even nonwhite voice. Black Is King, like Homecoming, seems uninterested in the white gaze.
Historically, American films have often used Africa as a backdrop for stories built around the protagonist’s, or at least the audience’s, inexperience in the landscape. Out of Africa, the 1985 slog of a Best Picture Oscar winner, was carried by Meryl Streep’s reenactment of author Karen (!) Blixen’s decade-and-a-half residency in Kenya as a white woman navigating the prickly intersections between sexism and racism in the early 1900s, traversing rooms where whiteness elevated her social status and where her womanhood made her the lesser. The Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks’ gorgeous Exodus story, is, barring a minor role played by Danny Glover, a film full of African and Middle Eastern characters played by a cast of white British and American talent, which, by nature of its source material, is tasked with downplaying ancient Egyptian theism in order to sell the audience on the divine Judeo-Christian mandate of its main character. The Lion King is also guilty of this. Its leonine Kenyan king was voiced by Home Improvement’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas; its maestro was “Rocket Man” Elton John. Last year, The Gift felt like an attempt to nudge The Lion King a little closer to its roots, if only in the auxiliary marketing, the same way the original film put out a supplementary soundtrack featuring African musicians to make up for Elton and Hans Zimmer.
Black Is King reveals The Gift for what it really is, a noble attempt at bridging African and Black American culture through music. It is almost completely devoid of white actors except for the sliver of dialogue from Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Timon and Pumbaa and the butler lurking in the corner of the scene that resembles the Roc Nation brunch. The richness of the Black experience is the point. There’s almost too much excellence to keep track of. Black Is King most resembles a modern music video in its wandering eye (although the scenes of quiet, regal stillness evoke the photography of Deana Lawson and George Osodi). The parade of gob-stopping outfits is almost psychedelic in its attention to crisp color. Black bodies are exalted in all their shapes and sizes. African performers Yemi Alade and Busiswa steal scenes in “My Power” and “Don’t Jealous Me”; models Adut Akech and Naomi Campbell shine during “Brown Skin Girl”; musician Lord Afrixana and actor Warren Masemola both appear as embodiments of Scar trying to ruin Simba, who is played as a youth by Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele and as an adult by Nyaniso Dzedze. Black creativity and spirituality are lifted up across mediums. The section soundtracked by Burna Boy’s “Ja Ara E” is a love letter to West African car culture but also a portent of doom: The vehicle is a tricked-out hearse interrupted in the end by the chilling approach of a Zangbeto signaling that the protagonist is jeopardizing his future by venturing into the unruly night. Simba is later blessed by a sangoma as he ascends to his regency. (As much as Black Is King borrows from Africa, a game of spot-the-influence yielded notable visual nods to DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Williams’s Belly, Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, Solange’s When I Get Home, Kanye’s Jesus Is King IMAX film, and maybe a dash of art-house flair from Ganja and Hess.)
Black Is King is most like a latter-day Disney product in its acknowledgment of its own criticism. The same way Tim Burton’s Dumbo scrubbed the film of its racist caricatures and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin penciled in a song where Jasmine could say she’s more than a damsel in need of rescuing, packing Black Is King with African talent chips away at the reasonable complaints from a year ago about the album centering a Black American star and selling West African culture as Pan-Africanism. The viewer should know that Black Is King isn’t entirely well rounded as an introduction to the arts of Africa, and while the soundtrack splashes around modern Nigerian popular music, its style seems more interested in the past than the present. Also treating Africa like the final destination of a spirit journey for lost Black sons and daughters overseas ignores real needs on the ground, where armed conflict, rights abuses, sickness, and water shortages plague many. Africa is not a bottomless well whose purpose is the nourishment of ceaseless generations.
But Beyoncé is a singer, songwriter, producer, director, and dancer, not a historian or politician, so it’s hard to say that Black Is King oversteps any boundaries in its simple mission to elevate Black beauty and foster Black unity. As governments fail to even feign empathy for the most vulnerable in society, we have come to lean on benevolent celebrities to follow in Oprah Winfrey’s footsteps and dedicate themselves to bridge gaps, but that’s not in the job description. Black Is King honors the history and culture of Africa and shares screen time and directorial duties with African auteurs. This isn’t your typical pop star putting on airs and parroting other accents or, in the case of Kendrick Lamar’s solid Black Panther album, a lot of American hip-hop artists gracing beats inspired by the music of Africa. It’s an inclusive experience and a gorgeous tale of metaphysical Afrofuturism. For what it is, it’s great. The question once more is: How does she top this?