Five Takeaways From Beyonce’s New Visual Album, ‘Black Is King’

Beyonce’s highly-anticipated visual album Black Is King debuted on Disney+ in the wee hours of the morning today, bringing with it a deluge of praise and adulation for the Houston-bred star. The project, which was inspired and accompanied by the deluxe edition of Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift companion album, took about a year to complete. About three months of that was probably just spent on doing Beyonce’s hair.

Beyonce has previously had tremendous success with the visual album format, going all the way back to her 2007 release of B’Day Anthology Video Album, which contained 13 videos from her second album B’Day. She evolved the concept in 2017 with Lemonade, the first time all of the videos from one of her albums were presented altogether as a “film.” Black Is King follows this format, with the addition of a simple storyline paralleling that of The Lion King, thanks to choice quotes taken from the live-action remake of the Disney classic.

The film has a lot on its mind, combining stunning imagery shot on-location throughout the African continent with spoken word clips from poets, activists, and orators on the subject of Blackness and how it relates to a world that rarely embraces everything Blackness means. It contains cameos from Beyonce’s close family and friends, including her mother, her children, her husband Jay-Z, her former Destiny’s Child musical partner Kelly Rowland, and a plethora of collaborators from The Gift album, from African stars like Shatta Wale and Busiswa to contemporaries Pharrell Williams and Jessie Reyez (although it looks like not even Beyonce can get Kendrick to leave Manhattan Beach these days).

Here are five observations from Black Is King.

“Africa” Is More Of An Idea Than A Place In Black Is King

Ahead of the release of Black Is King, some observers voiced concerns that its imagery exploited and exoticized the many, many cultures and traditions of the continent, flattening them into a Wakanda-esque ideal. Watching the film, it was hard to shake that sense, as the scene jumped from country to country — there were shots of soccer stadiums in South Africa juxtaposed with Nigerian streets — without any sense that they were different places with disparate cultures and histories and complicated relationships, even with each other.

Without any words or throughline to contextualize the Pan-Africanism movement, seeing all these cultures mashed together to celebrate a supposed shared origin made it hard to take it seriously as a statement on the drive toward one united Africa. As a Black person in America, it can be difficult to struggle with the sense of disconnect from our culture and our history. I don’t know if that means we can gumbo together other folks’ unique and rich traditions and slather them on as a remedy for our stolen lineage.

However, it was wonderful to see the beauty and wonder of the Motherland, both natural and manmade. The camera highlights architecture, art, fashion, progress, and tradition, lingering on glorious panoramas of the windswept countryside and looking up at statues of prominent leaders. Beyonce highlights the wealth that the continent contains, shooting the “Mood 4 Eva” video in a palatial estate, and on “My Power,” shares her platform with female African artists who would otherwise be overlooked by the American mainstream and even patriarchal African societies.

Black Is King Connects Africa To Freedom And America To Bondage

Despite being shot in Africa, Black Is King has plenty to say about America. The speaking clips throughout the film directly address the plight of Black Americans, from toxic masculinity to the exhaustion of existing under oppressing stereotypes. A Black debutante ball, a tradition of the Southern United States, is highlighted in the clip for “Brown Skin Girl,” highlighting America’s fraught relationship with Black beauty.

It’s in these moments that Black Is King most effectively connects its messaging with its imagery. Black Americans often take inspiration from African heritage, even when the connection is hazy, wistful, or barely there, because it’s the one place we see our skin colors — which come in a very broad variety — hailed as beautiful, meaningful, or worthwhile. America has to be forced, coerced, and shamed into acknowledging us, while many traditions in Africa, so opposite to Westernized ideals, value the very things America demeans.

One voice in the film speaks to the narrow range of boxes or boundaries Black people can fit into in America. While the country is never explicitly mentioned, it’s easy to recognize in the rhetoric. By juxtaposing those words with the astonishing array of diversity — even within Africa and Black people specifically — Black Is King dismisses those boxes. There is so much more to us than that.

Beyonce Is The Highlight Of The Film

Let’s face it: Beyonce projects are, primarily, about Beyonce. That’s why we like them.

Pardon me while I diverge for a second, but… you know those articles about scientists putting together algorithms to discover the ideal human face? Listen, every time one of those things churns out anything that is not just Beyonce, throw all the research in the trash. Somebody forgot to carry the one or something. There was a glitch in the matrix. Beyonce is the ideal human. It’s truly unfair. Did her parents sacrifice a cat at midnight or something?

Anyway, Black Is King is at its best whenever Beyonce is doing something. For all my complaints about the form not quite serving the stated function, Beyonce herself is magnetic and engaging and charismatic anytime she’s on screen, which makes the few times she’s not the focus the only moments the energy seems to flag (more on this later). This includes the songs in which she’s just doing background vocals or something.

Beyonce puts her concerns at the forefront; this is essentially why Black Is King exists. Beyonce, like much of the country, has gone through something of an awakening in the past few years, searching for a connection back to the Motherland. While for me, it may seem clunky (I had that moment well over 20 years ago and remember it as something of a cringe point in my life), it’s meaningful to her and to her legions of fans, as are the characters she stocks the film with: her husband, her daughter, her mother. Everything revolves around Beyonce; this is her universe and Black Is King is her way of inviting us in — and keeping us at a safe distance, as she has done on prior projects.

The Film Is A Celebration Of Blackness

The foundation of the film, truly, is a celebration of something that it often feels isn’t celebrated enough. The timing of its release seems critical, maybe even coincidental, but really, it would have been regardless of when it was released. All across the globe, darker-skinned people suffer terrible discrimination and oppression. That’s why there were Black Lives Matter protests in places like the UK, in the Middle East, and even in Africa. Being Black is being condemned to second-class treatment the world over, for no reason other than the color of your skin, the shape of your nose, the size of lips, or the curls of your hair.

Which is why Black Is King occupies itself primarily with the power of Black bodies in motion, of Black expressions of joy and resilience and everyday labor. There are closeups of Black folks looking austere and of them smiling. Beyonce flexes and struts through the videos for “My Power” and “Find Your Way Back” (which may be singlehandedly keeping the Swarovski company in business), looking glamorous and detached and ferocious. Black people are used as a human chess set, probably my favorite shot in the whole thing. There’s a Black synchronized swimming team, which checks so many “you don’t see that every day” boxes and contains so many layers of meaning, I could write an entirely separate essay on it.

There’s even a nod to the Biblical story of Moses, which feels like it’s at odds with literally everything else the film is trying to say, but makes sense because of how closely tied to Black identity the Christian religion is. The film is about Black families (I can’t tell if Jay-Z is a hostage or having the time of his life, but I suspect that’s the realest depiction of fatherhood there could be) living their lives, from the capitalistic abandon of The Carters to the simple day-to-day of the average citizen of Lagos or Johannesburg.

The Lion King Connection Waters Down The Film’s Impact

Remember how I said the weakest parts of the film are the ones where Beyonce isn’t in them?

There ultimately had to be a tie-in. This thing lives on Disney+, it’s based on an album Disney probably helped pay for to promote the live-action remake of its award-winning, nostalgia-inducing movie, which also happens to star Beyonce in a role as its main character’s mother.

It was a valiant effort, but its muddled messaging (are we supposed to forego city life to return to huts in the wilderness?), sort of mediocre acting, and rote familiarity make the 90-minute runtime seem to drag. Thematically, it doesn’t really tie the videos together, leaving the sense that they’d have worked just fine as a typical anthology, a la Lemonade.

We have already sat through the story of Simba, Mufasa, Nala, and Scar twice since the ‘90s, with the remake changing the setting to make it a little more realistic. Black Is King goes a step further in anthropomorphizing its main characters, making them human and placing them in a bizarre, abstract re-telling of the narrative in fast forward, skipping ahead in great swaths that force the major plot points between the music videos we actually came to see.

With the huge trend in re-releasing albums as deluxe versions resulting in this very film, hopefully we can see the same trick work in reverse, with a pared-down version of the film minus the hacky subplot. That, I would stay up late for all over again.