Words by Ellie Harbinson
You know that feeling when you watch something and are left with a burning sensation to either cry, ring a friend, get up and dance, or – if you’re like me – grab a pen and analyse everything you’ve just watched? Black Is King will make you want to do all the above. It’s a film celebrating the roots of a culture but also looks forward to a future of change. It is so much more than a visual album; it is both a work of art and a love letter.
“History is your future, one day you’ll find yourself back where you started, but stronger”
Beyonce leans into the legendary words of Mufasa, “we are all connected in the great Circle of Life”, focusing on how the future and past are connected. The film submerges you in a pool of culture, acceptance, sense of being and strength. Beyonce uses her platform to highlight a time without oppression or discrimination; she takes everything back to the beginning, celebrating the beauty of African culture and the African diaspora. After releasing her last visual album “Lemonade” in 2016, Beyonce was praised for the artistic cinematography and incorporation of Warren Shire’s emotional poetry. Niellah Arboine, from the Independent writes; “If Lemonade was for Beyoncé, then Black Is King is for us”, which speaks volumes. During Black Is King we are introduced to a host of dancers, actors and famous faces who all make up a celebration of Black talent. After filming in Africa, the US and the UK, British Vogue reveals that Beyonce used local talent in her film, incorporating a sense of community and involvement for the people she dedicates her ‘passion project’.
This film comes at a time of international unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, which triggered the onset of Black Lives Matter marches all over the globe. Beyonce prematurely released her video for ‘Black Parade’ on the 19th of June – ‘’Juneteenth” – a celebration of the 155th anniversary of the freedom from slavery for black people in America. As part of her “Bey-Good” initiative she donates the earnings from the song to black-owned small business funds. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People reveals that her initiative inspires people to be kind and reaches out to businesses worldwide. Speaking to Vogue, Beyonce reveals that she began the film to accompany the reimagined 2019 Disney film. As the film was released at such a pivotal moment of change, she states, in Vogue, that the film will “serve a greater purpose”. “…I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity”, she writes on Instagram.
The theme of self-identity is prevalent in the premise of the Lion King, Simba acts as the naïve young lion who grows into himself, being misled and deceived, before finally finding his roots and coming home to himself. Beyonce recreates this journey towards self-identity through her visuals, acting as a celestial presence throughout, with her voice intermittently guiding both us and the young king. She could also be perceived as a motherly figure not just to the child she nurses, but also to the entire cast whom she brings unity.
Throughout the film she is accompanied by a man painted in blue who acts as a guide, dancing and contemplating. Colours play a significant role in African culture; an article in the Radio Times discusses the Afam culture – for them, blue is representative of protection to ward against any evil spirits. We can gather that Stephen Ojo, the man painted in blue, could be a reimagined version of Rafiki with his lines recited, depicting him as a wandering soul. Rafiki’s most significant line comes at a time of self-reflection for the young king; “I know exactly who I am, the question is who are you?”. Beyonce is displayed multiple times throughout the film, with blue body paint; she dances during the song ‘Find Your Way Back’ after taking off a gown of sparkles to reveal the blue stripes. The struggle of self-identity within the story is intertwined with voices of people who have lost their roots amidst other cultures and silenced from their history, a man speaks; “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. So, Uncle Sam tell me this if I can never know me, how can you?”.
The artist uses glamour and regality in her film to highlight aspects of African culture which are rarely represented in western media. During the song ‘Mood 4 Eva’ we are led into Simba’s coming of age as we switch between the young king and Jay Z as the older version of himself. We see a carefree Simba rolling up to a mansion in a Rolls Royce, portraying the image of wealth as he tucks into a grand meal. Beyonce hosts an afternoon tea party; for viewers this serves as a visual feast, with the guests dressed in colourful, elegant dresses highlighting the pinnacle of high class. Later, during ‘Brown Skin Girl’, which celebrates a coming of age and beauty, we focus on a debutante ball which is an element of African American culture which is generally overlooked. Jenn Nkiru, the director for the song, speaks with Vogue on the vision for the scene, she comments on how the focus was to have a “think about how we can stretch people’s ways of thinking.” She explains that this “was very much the ethos for Black is King”.
Queen B has always ruled the music and film industry when it comes to female empowerment, so it’s no surprise that she uses her celebratory film to highlight women as powerful forces in ‘the circle of life’. A man speaks on the importance of women as the film transitions into the song; ‘Water’ which represents the essence of life; ‘‘Many times it’s the women that reassemble us. A lot of my manhood training came from women. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.”. The song ‘My Power’ highlights the strength of women and the war against people doubting the importance of a gender. To me it feels like a battle song, fighting for the recognition deserved, B sings “on the frontline ready for war”. She is joined on the track by the talented; Tierra Whack, Nija and Busiswa. The fashion in this section of the film is bold and the colours vibrant, celebrating a host of women.
The significance of Kings is a recurring theme in the film, as proposed in the title. Beyonce reiterates the fact that “Systemically we’ve had so much taken from us. Being a King is taking what’s yours, but not just for selfish reasons, but to actually build up the community.”. Beyonce highlights that being a King is based on duties and taking care of people not necessarily always surrounding ideas of royalty. She ends her visual album with this; “And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom”. She indicates that the youth of today are the future; they can move forward and create change and that’s what the film is all about, celebrating both the roots of a culture as well as accessing a future which links people back to their beginnings.
Beyonce has produced a work of art, if you haven’t watched Black Is King already, log-in to Disney Plus, or steal a mate’s and get ready for a spectacular piece of cinematography. You won’t be disappointed.