When Beyoncé took her first step down from that Coachella plinth in 2018, flanked by the best and brightest students from her country’s institutionally black colleges, she laid down as the gauntlet that would fuel her transition into the fourth decade of her career. Without alienating the largely white crowd, she made it clear that race was always on the table, and her image of black excellence even more so.
Her role as the voice of Nala in Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King was high-profile, but its accompanying Bey-curated soundtrack ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ felt arguably underrated, somewhat lost in the melee of the film’s release.
Pitched as an unrepressed ode to black joy and lineage, ‘Black Is King’ – an 85-minute ‘visual album’ – seeks to re-conceptualise the songs of last year’s release through a series of extended music videos, interspersed with vignettes and voiceovers from the original Disney story to paint a picture of racial pride and visibility. Drawing on the words of poet Warsan Shire (who also worked on ‘Lemonade’), Beyoncé sums up its message in one of the film’s early quotes: “To live without reflection for so long will make you wonder if you really exist.”
While the ‘can’t be what you can’t see’ adage might seem a little unobtainable to the majority of us who will never reach Beyoncé’s levels of uniqueness, charisma, nerve or talent, there is no denying that she is a beacon for the black community, an emblem of what is possible at those very top levels. Her recent single ‘Black Parade’, dismissed by some as a little insensitively upbeat in the current conversation around police brutality, appears here and makes a lot more sense in the new context, confined merely to the credits to allow the wider story to shine.
But this is not a tale strictly about Beyoncé – in fact, it’s an almost direct retelling of the key fables of The Lion King, cementing lasting values of heritage, legacy and the choices we all have to make between what is good and what is easy. Using music and visual art as a tool for education and elevation, it platforms all manner of excellent and underrated artists from the African diaspora – Wizkid, Tierra Whack, Moonchild Sanelly, Shatta Wale – demonstrating the value of hearing from black voices not only when they are in crisis, but when they are thriving. It is no mistake that this project premiered on Disney+, guaranteed to reach profitable audiences of all ages.
As with any Beyoncé project, the visuals here are impeccable. Each shot is straight out of a modernist gallery, juicy pinks and oranges beaming against impossible sunsets and lush green landscapes. ‘Find Your Way Back’ is particularly stunning in its glittering, Willy Wonka-style opulence, showing just how far Beyoncé has come from the diamante poncho of her first album cover (2003’s ‘Dangerously In Love’). Eldest daughter Blue Ivy makes numerous cameos, smiling with a confidence that only the daughter of excellence could pull off.
Anybody expecting a realistic portrayal of working-class Africa might be disappointed. As our Simba boy enters highly stylized ‘slums’, meeting a banana snake-toting, grill-wearing Rifiki, we are treated to ‘Don’t Jealous Me’, a low hip-winder that sees Mr Eazi and Yemi Alade shine. A designer biker gang moves menacingly in the trees to take down Mufasa, forcing Simba out of his pride. But, of course, Simba doesn’t make that journey on foot – in Beyoncé’s world, it’s a leopard-clad convertible Rolls Royce that transports him to a better life, transforming the young man into Jay-Z as he crosses the threshold of his new super estate, Adidas-clad butlers waiting to assist him with his luggage.
It would be an understatement to call this boujee, but it’s the best music video of the lot, a classic Jay and Bey fantasy of excess that sees them eating expensive TV dinners and posturing in elegant rooms. Coming To America? We don’t even know her.
While Beyoncé’s interpretation might be lavish, there are plenty of moments of stirring iconography. ‘The Nile’ sees her clad in white lace, mourning plenty more than the effigy of Mufasa as Kendrick Lamar’s verses waft in like waves. There’s a poignant moment that lingers on the importance of allowing vulnerability in black men, followed by another that holds up the chin of any black kid who feels different: “We were beauty before they knew what beauty was”.
In many ways, the buoyant ‘Brown Skin Girl’ offers the central moment of the film – set over scenes of an all-black debutante ball, it plays a little cheesy at first but soon becomes quite rousing, filled with cameos from Naomi Campbell, Lupita NYong’o and Kelly Rowland. Conspiracists will certainly get a good count across the film on the number of times Beyoncé encircles her belly, teasing the possibility of another child.
Coronavirus has taken it out of us all, and for black folk all over the world it’s been an especially rough few months, the world finally waking up to the injustices that we’ve been shouting about for years. Some days it seems like a Beyoncé figure could cure it all, but we don’t need her to be a politician or a president. Her high-end interpretation of a childhood classic is unlikely to emancipate the oppressions of us regular black folk, but what it does is provide a moment of levity and recognition, delivering entertainment in its most creative of forms.
Once again committed to aesthetic excellence, Queen Bey has proven that her reign is not without its own sprinkle of Disney magic.