Of the countless striking images in Beyoncé’s new visual album Black Is King, the one that stands out most is its most atypical. Beyoncé, lounging in a robe on a balcony overlooking an almost comically oversized pool, is feeling herself. She’s whipping her hair to the beat of her own song, “Mood 4 Eva,” basking in the sunlight that seems to shine forever upon her beautiful compound. In the foreground of this shot stands an older man, suited, and, interestingly, white; it appears he’s a butler. And as the music reaches a sudden, punctuating downbeat, Beyoncé and her butler turn toward the camera, in sync. She flashes a smile; the man reaches out to brush her already glowing teeth.
It’s a surreal, hilarious image, and a great piece of editing. Beyoncé, the queen she is, doesn’t even bother brushing her own teeth anymore. She doesn’t have time — she’s in this good-ass mood 4 eva! In a video for one of her hits about aspirational, self-possessed, autonomous queendom, the scene would be unsurprising. In Black Is King, though, the image takes on a fascinatingly different tone altogether.
Here, Beyoncé is not simply Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, superstar of American music. She is an avatar for the power, beauty, and royalty of blackness. She is a pinnacle of African queendom, composed of North African riches, West African traditionalism, South African artistry, and so on. Black Is King is a celebration of the African diaspora’s many stories, people, and cultures — not just the earthy, tribal qualities common to Western portrayals, but the wealth, futurism, and spirituality that exists throughout Africa, too.
Africa is no singular entity, Beyoncé shows us through the 85-minute powerhouse of an art film. Africa is the motherland of all shades of Blackness. And through these gorgeous frames, each one an art piece of its own, she says: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”
That’s not just a Lion King reference apropos of nothing. Black Is King is streaming exclusively on Disney+, which seemed at first to be a strange choice of platform for a film that doesn’t shy away from the sensuality of the body or racial power dynamics. Disney+ is family-friendly, save a Hamilton here and there. But Black Is King is the visual accompaniment to last year’s The Lion King: The Gift, a record Beyoncé produced and performed on as a tie-in to the 2019 Lion King remake. (Beyoncé also starred in the film, voicing the adult version of Nala, Simba’s best friend and future queen.) At the time, Beyoncé announced the album as a collaboration between herself and many of Africa’s most acclaimed artists.
She also called it, tellingly, a work of “sonic cinema.” Although The Gift did not explicitly tell The Lion King’s story, it was inspired by it. “Each song was written to reflect the film’s storytelling that gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery, while listening to a new contemporary interpretation,” she said of the album ahead of its release last summer.
The Gift is both an excellent and atypical Beyoncé album, darting between balladry and Afropop without ever dropping the percussive beat intrinsic to African music. Great as The Gift was (it was a personal favorite of mine last year), it got less notice than you’d expect a Beyoncé record to receive. Maybe it was due to the poor reception of The Lion King remake. More cynically, maybe it was because of the equal attention paid to artists not as well-known in the US, and because its lyrics were sung in multiple African languages. A year later, it’s clear that many of these artists featured were rising stars of their own — Burna Boy, Jessie Reyez, and Tierra Whack have all found great success since The Gift’s release.
But maybe the album’s initially soft landing was because Beyoncé engineered The Gift as it as something meant to be seen, not just heard. Black Is King transforms an entertaining album into an empowering work of art, clarifying its intent by loading it with sequences shot in numerous African countries. The film uses occasional sound clips from The Lion King remake, as the album did, which creates a structure: This is a Beyoncé-fied version of The Lion King’s story, about a boy prince losing his father, abandoning his place on the throne, then returning home years later to assume the role of king of the Pride. It’s a loose interpretation, which unravels almost completely by the film’s last third. But this is an unconventional version of a classic Shakespearean tale refreshed by its human cast.
The majority of the cast is Black African, except for fun guest appearances from non-Africans such as Naomi Campbell, Pharrell, and Kelly Rowland. (The adorable Blue Ivy Carter gets tons of great screen time, too.) The actors are light-skinned, medium-skinned, dark-skinned; some artists wear grills and dance atop astronomically priced cars, while others march alongside Beyoncé through sand and dress in less adorned outfits. There are many scenes with Bey and the actors costumed in gorgeous avant-garde dresses, or posed and dancing within sets designed like art pieces. All of it is Black exquisiteness.
That Blackness is empowering for a Black viewer, especially one watching in summer 2020. This year has been like walking through a never-ending, terrifying haunted house. George Floyd’s killing by police in late May incited renewed and widespread Black Lives Matter activism that felt much needed, but also depressingly so as the needless death toll among Black Americans continues to grow. The one positive is that we are having overdue conversations about the endemic, systemic racism proliferating around the world. Groups in power are called out for their racial transgressions; new allies are acquainting themselves with anti-racist practices. We are all reminded this is an everyday struggle, not a moment but a movement.
Black Is King’s July 2020 release is perfectly timed for the world’s newfound awareness of the Black experience. Its appreciation is also a positive one, not tinged with death, abuse, murder, you name it; it’s joyful and danceable and full of beautiful “wow” moments. Beyoncé loves being Black. Everyone in the film loves their Black or brown skin, and knows that their skin and culture and heritage give them so much strength.
Which is why I love that one image, of Beyonce’s flash of a smile and her butler with a toothbrush. Africa — and, implicitly, Blackness — is so easily reduced by white media as an uncivilized place, rife with jungles and huts and straw skirts. Yes, there are countries in Africa that continue to have tribal beliefs and social systems. But there are also tons of cosmopolitan areas, where women are decked out in designer everything and mansions are built out with multiple pools. Beyoncé’s lifestyle is not totally abnormal in these wealthiest of African places. If Black is king, it means Black is powerful. Black is in charge. Black is enviable.
Everything about Black Is King is enviable. It’s not just a high-quality production. It’s a multicultural masterpiece sorely needed in a world where we are striving to be less monocultural. Black Is King opens up, just like Beyonce’s shining-white smile.