After months of living the same lonely day over and over, whilst feeling powerless as the world fell apart around me, God herself answered my prayers. On July 31, Beyoncé Gissele Knowels-Carter released the world-stopping visual album Black Is King on the new streaming site Disney+. The world wide superstar is truly a goddess among mortals and she proved that yet again with this masterpiece.
Obviously I, a die hard Yoncé stan, am biased. While still being so Beyoncé in every way, Black Is King stands alone from everything Beyoncé has released in the past. It is possibly comparable only to the album that revolutionized Beyoncé’s sound: Lemonade, released in 2016, which also had a visual component.
July was a month of jaw dropping numbers of COVID-19 cases in the United States, as well as a month of conversation and protest around the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in America. It was almost as if Queen Beyoncé knew this celebration of Black and African culture was just what we needed. However, while the timing was coincidentally perfect, Black Is King, which was written, directed, and produced by Beyoncé, was actually inspired by the 2019 remake of The Lion King that Beyoncé starred in and for which she produced the soundtrack.
The 1 hour and 25 minute film illuminates a glorious and often unacknowledged reality that Black is beautiful. For so long, art and most forms of media have lacked positive portrayals of Black people. This allows for non-Black people to easily create a harmful single story about Black people and the Black experience. Beyoncé explains eloquently in her narration that, for Black people, “to live without reflection for so long will make you question whether you really exist.”
Beyoncé has always been vocal in supporting the Black community. Her strong stance against police brutality led to many police departments refusing to provide security for her concerts during the Formation World Tour, and led to the “Boycott Beyoncé” movement, which she quickly rebranded. The only non-Black people ever shown in the Black Is King visual album were depicted as servants waiting on Black men and women decadently dressed and dripping in wealth in front of huge paintings of Black royalty and religious figures. The way in which Black Is King portrayed and celebrated Black people was so far from the dominant narrative, so defiant in its own way, that the film has established itself as a form of cultural resistance.
While at surface level the movie is a series of artistic and defiant music videos, watching the movie a second time I was able to tear myself away from the outfits, setting, songs and dancing to pick up on a narrative of a young boy. We meet him as a baby, where he is cast into the Nile in scenes reminiscent of the biblical story of Moses. We follow him as he meets different adults and people who help him on his journey as he learns to connect to his roots, his ancestors, and his identity as a young Black King. Beyoncé and James Earl Jones as well as guest speakers and poets narrate in between songs sending messages of positivity and strength, specifically to the Black community. These include calls to “[take] what’s yours, but not for selfish reasons, to build up your community,” and pleas to “let Black be synonymous with glory.”
Throughout the film we see footage of the beautiful geographic diversity of the African continent. Images of lively urban neighborhoods, lush green forests, colorful deserts, thriving rural communities, and beautiful beaches challenge the dry-mud-hut-impoverished narrative of Africa that is fed to us by most Western media. Every scene from the movie is abundant with art in many forms including clothing, body paint, jewelry, make-up, and hair. All the art and symbolism in the movie originates from throughout the African diaspora and Africa itself. While Beyoncé masterminded the operation, she recruited the help of many other artists, making sure to keep the entire creative team Black professionals. The many different talented musicians and dancers as well as artists behind the scenes expanded on the sound, look, and vibe of the entire project; from the afro-beats and the sound of the Kora (a stringed instrument that can give the sound of a harp or an electric guitar) to the amazingly elaborate South African hair braiding. It is worth noting that while Beyoncé incorporated many different cultures and countries, the film heavily centered around Nigerian and South African cultures, while call backs to Kenya — where my family is from — and East Africa in general, were few and far between.
I am disappointed that Beyoncé reserved this movie for the expensive and highly profitable streaming service, Disney+. I am disappointed that it was more important for her to make money off of this movie, rather than doing her best to make it as accessible as possible, because of all the movie did for me and all I believe it can do for potential viewers. Ultimately, despite only existing on Disney+ and not being entirely representative of the complete African diaspora, I am so glad that this movie exists. This film is a must watch for everyone. For Black people like myself who want to see their strength, history, and culture celebrated in a way like never before; for non-Black people who want to participate in cultural exchange and expand their narrative of Black and African culture and art; for fans of music, dance, and explorative cinema who fit in either category for that matter. You are doing yourself a disservice by not watching it. If you haven’t already, call up your grandparent or uncle that watches too much TV and ask them for their Disney+ password. It’s worth the small talk.