After watching Black Is King, on Disney+ Hotstar, I was certainly left in awe and wonder of Beyoncé’s craft. Her ambition and tuneful dynamism have consistently remained jaw-dropping. She has elided (at times, even reformed) the divide between art, culture, and politics with her work. In her music, they are synonymous. Black Is King is another addition to her sonic skills. Here, she dons the responsibility of celebrating African culture and history.
The news and chatter around this visual album/film was rather quiet and mysterious. Only a few details were disclosed prior to its release — the film is an artistic continuation to the album Beyoncé created in connection to The Lion King remake, ‘The Lion King: The Gift.’ And referring to one of her Instagram posts as well as the trailer, Black Is King is supposed to explore African traditions and diaspora, while also following a spiritual arc we saw in Jon Favreau’s latest film (as well as the original). The film-album essentially ticks all those boxes — it provides visual tapestry to the songs from The Gift and to quite some extent, attempts to follow the philosophical journey of Simba and Nala (Beyoncé also voiced this character in the remake). As a sum of its fledgeling parts, however, Black Is King isn’t quite narratively coherent.
For a film that is specially knit by stylised music pieces, there is only one thing that separates it from a YouTube album with distinct songs — a cohesive structure. This is where Black Is King doesn’t really fit the bill of a film. The visual album begins with Beyoncé coddling a baby, paralleling Rafiki, who monumentally presents Simba to the Pride Lands of Africa. It even includes an interlude featuring Mufasa’s canonical “circle of life” speech, amongst others. And in the opening track, the surging and tone-setting ‘Bigger,’ she sings, “I’ll be the roots / You’ll be the tree / Pass on the fruit that was given to me.” Here, remnants of The Lion King are openly visible — channelling you to expect a narrative parallel. However, soon after the first few tracks, the film digresses into a narrative-deaf, amorphous territory. The thread between each song grows more and more disjointed.
The moulting tone does not essentially recover until the end of the album. The last couple of tracks do embody Simba’s story as the mighty but vulnerable king. But as a whole, the album’s bare treatment of The Lion King feels like a great opportunity lost. And this is not to say that the songs, individually, lack meaning and significance. The music, with Beyoncé’s celebrity sheen alongside its call for Black solidarity, is filled with unbridled passion.
‘My Power,’ a song I particularly loved, is the old-school brawny track of this album. The über-fast choreography, supplementing the beats of the song, is at the same time empowering and rebellious. There’s also a track on colourism, ‘Brown Skin Girl’ (that cast Indian performers, too). The Nigerian-Guyanese song is rootsy and the rightful hallmark song of the entire album. Within its syncopated rhythm lies one of the most uplifting messages of the film, “Your skin is not only dark / It shines and it tells your story.” The rest of the album, with contributions from Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, WizKid, Pharrell Williams, is not as memorable. The empowerment and upliftment are never recalibrated to a different ideal. The only noticeable change, after a point, is Beyoncé’s vocal ability to shift from high to low-intensity.
The elements, however, that do make this film more appealing than a shuffled Spotify playlist are its tasteful visuals. In this explosive collision of Coachella and couture, the album immerses you into its beauty and grandeur. From the arid lands to the cascading waterfalls, the cinematography is able to capture the most banal landscapes in a vibrant manner. But it is the film’s production and costume design that, without question, stand out. The opulent dresses, that are decadently soaked in sequin and satin, are otherworldly. And the set designs, that can get somewhat garish, are visually indulgent. This is precisely what one would expect in a music album with ample funding, but it is the 90-minutes runtime of this movie that constantly reminds you of the meticulousness this craft requires.
These nonmusical spectacles gradually wear you down though. The sartorial elegance and dizzying shots, to a large extent, do begin to unduly romanticise the cultures they wanted to portray. Most people’s faces are covered in chalk and powder; the images are predominantly of either deserts or forests; and they rarely show anything between the rural and urban. This borderline stereotypical portrayal of the African continent coupled with the one-note and unidimensional message on Black pride gets a tad bit repetitive towards the end. Had there been some form of a narrative twang to accompany the soundtrack, the visual album would have carried much more weight.
You can find Black Is King on Disney+ Hotstar.