“I’m not there yet, 100 percent,” a voice comes in over a black screen, “ya feel me? Like, I know I got the capabilities to, but sometimes I don’t know how to navigate.”
Then we see a wide shot, a river, a basket floating in it, like we know from the Old Testament.
A drone shot finds Beyoncé on a shallow beach, dressed in a white gown, bride-like, with not a man in sight. She is alone with an infant child, looking strong as hell, navigating this landscape armed only with her Blackness and her bare feet.
This is how Black is King, Beyoncé’s epic art film based on The Lion King and scored to the accompanying soundtrack, The Gift, opens. The film has been dubbed a “visual album,” a medium Beyoncé pioneered with Lemonade in 2016 and continues to expand on here to strikingly stunning results.
Black is King tells a story loosely garnered from The Lion King — we first meet Simba (as he is credited but never named aloud in the film) briefly as an infant, then as a young child. In this iteration, he is played by seven-year-old Nigerian actor Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele, who made his acting debut in Beyoncé’s music video for the song “Spirit.”
If you were alive when the original The Lion King premiered, Black is King might feel revelatory. While Disney’s first iteration, the animated version which starred white actors in many of the starring roles, was visually spectacular and hugely successful, watching this may make you wonder why we tolerated it.
Casting Jonathan Taylor-Thomas and Matthew Broderick in their respective roles as Simba at different ages de-Africanized a movie literally set in Africa. But Black is King imagines a future in which that never happens again, or possibly reverts time to rewrite the past so it never happened at all.
“Look at the stars,” you hear James Earl Jones say over the image of Akinmurele’s slight body twisting in outer space, a silhouette against the glowing blue globe of our own Earth, “If you ever feel alone, just remember those kings will always be there to guide you.”
In this moment in the film, Beyoncé makes her relationship to Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic and philosophy that explores the intersection of African diaspora communities and technology, indisputable.
While she’s toyed before with the aesthetic and theme, in this work she’s dividing a beloved childhood story from its precious, cutesy beginnings and thrusting a more robust narrative around it. This work seems to be demanding a future where Blackness will not be ignored, nor divorced from African-ness. What many have seen as the ignorance to the trauma that Black people have faced seems more like the acceptance of and commitment to Afrofuturism, which Beyoncé, now clearly a multi-disciplinary artist, seems unlikely to steer from going forward in her career.
Maybe the most poignant passage in the film comes just about an hour in when we find the story reverting back to before where we began, with Beyoncé gently placing an infant in a basket, the same one we see rescued in the beginning, and set him afloat down the river. Next we see the camera arch over the edge of a waterfall, replete with a lens-flared rainbow. But as we peer over its edge, in what is somehow the most Kubrickian shot of the entire film — though we’ve already seen a young Simba as a literal space-baby — we cut to a grown Simba splashing into a sea-foam pool, his thick, gold chain suspended delicately about his neck in the water. He grips an artifact in his fist, and we are suddenly transported to the center of Johannesburg’s infamous Ponte City.
There we see the late South African actor and icon Mary Twala waiting there to greet him. Simba gives her the artifact; she looks shocked. But her arms rise into the air, and by whatever magic she instills into him, Simba’s well-heeled feet begin to rise gently from the ground, and then he’s propelled up, up, through the core of the Ponte and into the bright sky. “Salutations,” you hear Beyoncé monologue over the imagery, “to the survivors of the world. Our elders are tired.”
This was Twala’s second Disney film, having played Serafina’s grandmother in the eponymous 1992 musical. But despite her passing before the release of the final movie of her long and storied career, Twala’s son, Somizi, may have summed it up the best: “I remember Mama,” he wrote, accompanying a clip of his late mother in Black is King, “she lives in me.”
Nigerian artist Burna Boy also makes an appearance in the film. In 2019, he notably vowed he’d never return to South Africa in response to the xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg and Cape Town he experienced in September of that year, thus scrapping his chance to play at Constitution Hill on New Year’s Eve. But in a powerful reversal of his earlier renunciation of South Africa, Burna Boy appears in Black Is King alongside the likes of South Africa’s Moonchild Sanelly and Busiswa, with whom he was supposed to share that stage at Constitution Hill. In a year so fraught with turmoil, it makes you feel as if we’re on the verge of some kind of resolution.
But the release has not been without controversy.
Leading up to the film’s release, there was a growing backlash to Beyoncé’s portrayal of African people in the trailer for the project. The criticisms included objections to the use of white face paint, the rural landscapes, and the reliance on traditional African themes rather than contemporary ones.
“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 and build a legacy,” Beyoncé wrote on her Instagram. Those influences are clearly represented in the jewel-toned colors of their dresses and monochromatic body paint, a clear nod to Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh. The feel of the set dressing throughout feels as lush and regal as an Ebony G. Patterson installation. When Jay Z finally appears we feel like he has stepped freshly from a Kehinde Wiley portrait, and at one point we even see Pharrell dancing around inside a real-life Jeremiah Quarshie painting.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that many Africans felt the representations of their culture they had seen so far in her work were too stereotypical. But among what some viewers might deem the appropriative use of traditional Africanisms is also the clear, legitimate influences of contemporary Black and African artists.
Beyonce has also been called out for the fact that she has never launched an African tour and only played a handful of events on the continent, most recently Global Citizen in Johannesburg. That oversight came up again when viewers noticed that Disney+, where the film is streaming exclusively, is not available anywhere in Africa. This problem was eventually rectified, striking a deal with several African distributors to air the film beginning August 1, one day after the Disney+ premiere.
Despite what 2020 has dealt us, it’s hard to not feel Beyoncé’s optimism when you watch her film. It’s difficult not to feel the infectious charge of the connections within the Black diaspora. And if nothing else, you can be assured that as you’re watching, that millions of other Black people around the world are watching, too.
And hey. Maybe that’s enough.