Black is King

It’s a little jarring at first to press play on Black Is King and see the Disney logo pop up as the instrumental for “When You Wish Upon a Star” plays. The media conglomerate’s history with Black people has been one twisted by racism from its executives and its films. Fantasia and Dumbo both dealt in negative stereotypes about Black people. Song of the South may have won two Oscars, but the board members at the House of Mouse have locked it away in the vault for all eternity due to its racism. The Princess and the Frog finally offered the world a Black Disney princess, but she was turned into a frog for the majority of her own film. As for their two animated films primarily set in Africa—The Lion King and Tarzan—they set themselves in the wild and never, ever show someone of African descent. Blackness at Disney has been a series of compromises. 

Black Is King repudiates the history of racism in the House of Mouse. It is an epic paean to Blackness, unapologetically reveling in what it means to be Black. Based on the compilation album The Lion King: The Gift, which was released in concurrence with the 2019 “live-action” remake of The Lion King, the film reimagines Disney’s cinematic crown jewel with a more fantastical and more human bent. Both the album and this film feature a wide variety of African artists all under the guiding eye of perhaps the one Black American musician who has enough power to bend Disney to her will: Beyoncé.

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Beyoncé has always been proud of her heritage, but it wasn’t until Lemonade that both the white public and critical intelligentsia really took notice. “Formation” still stands out as a major moment both for her and for American pop culture in general, even attracting threats of boycotts from police who were livid that she dared ask them to stop systematically murdering Black people. Since then, she has continued to create art that delved deeper into her cultural heritage, especially in the traditions of the Yoruba. Her exploration of African spiritualism has uplifted a religious heritage to the eyes of the world, unfortunately attracting baseless accusations of Satanism from both Christian zealots and Tik Tok teenagers. She conquered Coachella and turned it into a homecoming to celebrate the tradition of HBCUs, and now she’s taken on America’s whitest media institution. Black is King, much like its accompanying album, uplifts musicians and artists from Nigeria (Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade), Ghana (Shatta Wale), Cameroon (Salatiel), South Africa (Busiswa, Moonchild Sanelly), and other countries across the continent. Even the choreography incorporates a mix of traditions, such as the Maasai jump and the gbese. 

The film itself is a loose reimaging of The Lion King, positioning Beyoncé as a mystical figure throughout the narrative as Simba (Nyaniso Dzedze as an adult, Folajomi Akinmurele as a child) as he finds his way back into the circle of life after his wicked uncle Scar (Warren Masemola) murders his father Mufasa (Sibusiso Mbeje). The film’s centering of Black creatives makes the whitewashing of the original animated film and the remake painfully clear. The argument that Black Is King is in fact better than the box office juggernauts that inspired it begins with this removal of whiteness from the story and the creation of a story that doesn’t rely on Lebo M as its only African voice.

The narrative beats are familiar, but Beyoncé and the army of artists she’s assembled give them a twist. Mufasa dies when he’s run over by fleeing motorcycles instead of a wildebeest stampede, and Simba grows up in a big city after having a lavish dream of a mansion complete with synchronized swimming (this dream is notably the only display of luxury and opulence in the film). It’s an important contrast: the bizarre tone of “Mood 4 Eva”—nay, its pointed and satirical emptiness—is thrown into stark contrast with the sequence for “Ja Ara E,” where Simba rides around in the back of a car as the nightlife of a big city rages on in the background. Here, Simba’s joy in being alive has more truth to it than the cheery fakery of the Carters’ mansion. 

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As the 14 songs from the album play out on screen, the film constantly uplifts and cherishes Blackness. “Let Black be synonymous with glory,” Beyoncé says right before the first song, “Bigger. Most of the featured artists from the album make an appearance: Jessie Reyez shows up for “Scar” (one of the most underrated tracks), Pharrell Williams appears for “Water,” husband Jay-Z wears another pantsuit for the extravaganza dream of “Mood 4 Eva,” and Tierra Whack storms into “My Power” with an outfit that seems ripped from the mind of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Globally beloved heir to the music throne Blue Ivy Carter shows up at multiple points, including in “Brown Skin Girl.”

“Brown Skin Girl” is one of the film’s two core emotional moments. The song, a lullaby with Saint Jhn and WizKid, cherishes dark skin, and Beyoncé brings in an entire debutante ball of brown skinned girls (including dark skinned South Asian women, a lovely and distinctive reminder of the song’s all-encompassing love for brown skinned girls no matter what race they belong to) and a few famous friends to send a message to darker skinned girls and women around the world: you are loved. Your skin is beautiful, and never let anyone tell you otherwise. As Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Naomi Campbell, and others smile and hug on screen, the song becomes the ultimate weapon against centuries of Eurocentric beauty standards. It’s the best scene in any film this year. 

What might challenge it is the sheer heartbreak of the sequence for the emotional ballad “Otherside.” Beyoncé pulls in the Biblical story of Moses and walks down to the river and sends off her son in a basket to save him from the destructive nature of white supremacy (represented by an incoming storm). While she cries, it’s hard not to think about her public struggle with miscarriages in the past. The final appearance of legendary South African actress Mary Twala as the film’s Rafiki right after this adds to the emotion. 

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The entire film is visually arresting from start to finish: scenes such as “Nile” (where Beyoncé sings about her skin as white paint covers her mouth while Mufasa lies in a white coffin behind her—a double metaphor for white being the preferred funeral color for many African cultures and for the violence of white supremacy), “Find Your Way Back” (where the costumes offer an incredible amount of gems as Beyoncé and her dancers move with grace in the desert), and “Already” make you wish theaters were still open. Imagine this film in IMAX. Coronavirus, you are a cruel mistress. The endless display of incredible costumes by Zerina Aakers and Daniel Obasi, and the wide array of physical locations, both wide landscapes and intimate interiors of a village and a city add up to the best visual feast of the year. It’s an astounding amount of eye candy, one that fuses the spectacle of Homecoming with the raw emotional poetry of Lemonade.

It’s not perfect; the narrative becomes a little muddled after a while and one segment, “Keys to the Kingdom,” feels lost in the mix despite the lovely visuals. Yet the overwhelming emotions and the sheer size and scope of the film more than make up for those flaws. It’s the best film the Disney brand has been associated with in more than a decade. In a time when systemic racism is under a spotlight more than before as the United States is reminded that Black lives matter, Black Is King offers a celebratory balm to soothe the soul—and will hopefully shift the terrible way that America views the African continent, a land with 54 countries and thousands of unique cultures. 

“Black is king. We were beautiful before they knew what beauty was.” – Beyoncé

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A Review

coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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