At least three powerful forces are at work in Black Is King, the latest “visual album” from Beyoncé: African ancestralism, Disney’s The Lion King (particularly the 2019 remake that Beyoncé was a part of); and Beyoncé herself, with all the weight and symbolism that being a single-name superstar entails.
I can’t say that all of these elements convincingly coalesce. (I’d also recommend tracking down writing by others who are more familiar with the film’s reference points and can more ably connect the dots.) Like The Lion King: The Gift, the 2019 album on which these songs first appeared (interspersed with dialogue snippets from the movie), Black Is King often seems of two, maybe three minds. Releasing a basket onto a river with a baby inside, Beyoncé is at once Simba’s mother and Moses’ (not to mention that of her own children, who appear here alongside husband Jay-Z). Simultaneously, she is depicted as the symbolic mother of Black pride around the globe—born of African royalty and undimmed, if systemically diminished, in the unjust America of 2020. It’s a lot for an 85-minute film to take on, let alone meld into a unified vision.
Still, in its parts, this is stunning. Beyoncé is credited as co-director alongside a long list of worldwide talents, all of whom combine to create a lush, gorgeous aesthetic equally influenced by traditional African fashion and afrofuturist visions. The vibrant colors and forest settings of “Water” (featuring Pharrell Williams and Salatiel) give way to the celestial scope and stuttered choreography of “Find Your Way Back.” More than a few sequences turn the focus on African artists—especially “My Power,” in which Busiswa, Yemi Alade, Moonchild Sanelly, and DJ Lag strut their way through a set of patterned cubes.
But the camera and microphone predictably, understandably, always gravitate toward Beyoncé. (I’m not sure she’s ever looked and sounded fiercer than during “MOOD 4 EVA,” a leopard-print melange of star exceptionalism and capitalist excess.) Black Is King—like the offstage sequences of Homecoming or the soft-glow segments of Lemonade—is ultimately a project of image cultivation. African history, African-American experience, Timon and Pumbaa—all bend in service of a staggeringly talented star. It’s an astral projection that nearly functions as an eclipse.