Review: Black is King

Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

Stars: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kelly Rowland, Lupita Nyong’o

The visual album has become a linchpin of Beyoncé’s release schedule for the past decade now – since she reclaimed her artistic vision from her father – and has increasingly belayed an artist’s interest in the medium, something she more than capitalised upon last year with Homecoming. That film – currently on Netflix – is one of the quintessential concert films, documenting her landmark Coachella performances. A notable feature of the Coachella project was a pyramid of Black musicians backing her as she rolled out a greatest hits. The sense of pride and celebration was huge. It was a further example of Beyoncé’s understanding of the power in aesthetics. She can sing – broadcasting her hits across the globe – but she also knows the worth of an indelible image and the sense of personal expression that can go into making one.

This weekend sees her latest visual album available to stream via Disney+. Why the House of Mouse, you may ask? The album, Black is King, is an extension of her work on the soundtrack to last year’s ‘live action’ remix of The Lion King. The two projects are intrinsically linked. And yet, Beyoncé uses the story of The Lion King – itself essentially a retelling of Hamlet – as a springboard for her own mandate; what messages does the narrative present that can be absorbed and wielded positively by the rising Black generation?

The 85 minutes of Black is King explore these possibilities in a vivid, rapturous manner that links to the celebratory feeling of Homecoming, while visually Beyoncé continues to develop upon the Malick-tinged flavours of grace explored during 2016’s Lemonade. And the nods to the greats of modern film history don’t stop there.

There’s a cyclical dialogue between feature films and music videos that has been going on since the ’60s. One influencing and coaxing the other onward, the other reciprocating. One gets the sense that Beyoncé is quite the cinephile while watching Black is King. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is echoed in costume. Julia Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is there in the sense of heritage and folklore. There are even nods to Kubrick’s 2001 and recent Lynch projects such as Twin Peaks: The Return and even WHAT DID JACK DO? and this is only the first fifteen minutes I’m talking about. Of course, some of these connections / riffs may be happenstance, but a lot of them feel deliberate. But Beyoncé isn’t merely hat-tipping cultural signposts; rather she is taking aesthetic cues and refracting them. These are samples, if you will, which she reconfigures, remixes, sends back to us with her own DNA entwined in them.

Black is King is not a traditional Beyoncé album. Aside from a few numbers, she vocally takes a back seat and curates – akin to Kendrick Lamar’s work on the Black Panther soundtrack (he’s featured here, too) – allowing rising stars of African music to have their time in the spotlight. Oumou Sangaré. Nija. Busiswa. Shatta Wale. The resulting collection has a diverse and vibrant feel to it and hopefully the platform will allow many of these artists to springboard themselves to new heights.

This is part of the positive mandate Black is King brings forth. There is a loose narrative that follows the story of The Lion King. We watch an outcast boy become a man, we see him make choices, skirt danger, and ultimately mature to the point that he decides to reclaim his place in the world. It’s a story that resonates with both the African and African American experience. Of finding your way in spite of. In the midst of this, Black is King encourages self-belief, while celebrating the inherent beauty in Blackness and the sense of importance in heritage, in roots. Looking backward in order to define one’s sense and stride forward.

Kelly Rowland and Lupita Nyong’o turn up to help Beyoncé rejoice on the wonderful “BROWN SKIN GIRL” – a mid-film highlight. Jay-Z makes his obligatory cameo to add a verse or two to “MOOD 4 EVA”, an area of the film which celebrates material success. Beyoncé lounges around a luxurious mansion – a queen with her king and her cubs. One could read it as taking back something deserved. But Beyoncé’s reparations have always been earned through hard graft and commitment. The empires she dreams of are self-built rather than inherited. Rather than stagnant, they carry momentum within them.

In all aspects this is a hugely impressive project, ‘something way bigger’ than either 2013’s Beyoncé or Lemonade‘s ‘visual albums’ aspired to. Both of those projects had narrative arcs to them. Bolstered by The Lion King, Black is King is the most pointed and propulsive artistic statement to come yet. In fact, she eclipses her springboard. Last year’s film has already been largely forgotten. Black is King feels more resonant, more urgent, more important. As such, sound clips and reference to ‘Simba’ occasionally feel frivolous in the context of the real-world message of encouragement Beyoncé puts forward here.

Recent single “BLACK PARADE” plays over the credits (themselves a fascinating insight into the vast collaborative nature of Beyoncé’s work) while early in the film – reminiscent of The Tree of Life – the singer/songwriter/actor/performer/director frames her story from space. A global concern. Lemonade was angry and now would be a just time to show further outrage. But Black is King is more about what comes after anger. It’s about the reckoning, and the take-back. Not just as an act of defiance, but as a positive act; recognising and acting upon self-worth. Powerful.

 

 

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