In the midst of an explosive year of social and political unrest, enter Beyoncé’s Black is King, a collaborative visual album that reimagines the story of The Lion King (1994) via human characters, with a vast array of sounds and images inspired by the cultural diversity of Africa. The film was crafted by 8 directors, 3 co-directors, 5 writers, 4 editors, 12 cinematographers (capturing locations from both Africa and North America), 4 production designers, 2 costume designers, 8 composers and a cast so large, their names would likely take up the length of this essay. Beyoncé’s Ghanaian co-director Kwasi Fordjour, Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule, Nigerian-British filmmaker Jenn Nkiru, Somali poet Warsan Shire and Nigerian-American screenwriter Ibra Ake are just some of the many talents involved in the sprawling production. In the middle of it all is Beyoncé, fresh off her role as Nala in the 2019 photorealistic reboot of the original Disney film.
Though considered a Mouse House classic, the original animated film has been met with controversy since the beginning of its production. Like many Disney classics, The Lion King is a masterpiece of cultural appropriation and marketing, which gestures towards more authentic cultural touchstones of Mali such as the legend of King Sundiata and director Souleymane Cissé’s classic fantasy film Yeelan (1987). Black is King is a film that aims to bring the focus back to the story’s origins.
The film is guided by music from Beyonce’s Lion King album “The Gift,” which was released earlier this year to much fanfare. Segments set to songs like “Keys to the Kingdom” and “Scar” relate directly to the Disney film’s plot, while others like those for “Nile” and “Mood 4 Eva” are thematically related but within the context of the film come off as much more indulgent and American. Featuring voiceover by both James Earl Jones, reprising his role as Mufasa, and Beyonce herself, who serves as Simba’s ancestral spirit guide, Black is King follows the young Simba from his birth, through his wayward adolescence and eventual return to his homeland in order to cast out Scar and regain his rightful place on the throne. But the film isn’t just about Simba and his classical hero’s journey, it’s also about reclaiming this African story as a “radical” act and cultural balm for Black people craving representation. From the promotional materials, to Beyonce’s own words on developing the film, it’s clear that Black is King is an attempt to add specificity to a story that was formerly marketed as universal.
Black is King boasts performances from Nigerian artists Burna Boy, Wizkid, Mr Eazi and Tiwa Savage; Ghanian artist Shatta Wale; Malian musician Oumou Sangare, along with American rapper Tierra Whack and Canadian rapper Jessie Reyez. Yoruba culture seems to have the largest influence on the film’s visual style, music, and dress. The film is at its best with sequences like “My Power”, “Don’t Jealous Me” and “Ja Ara E” which thrust the work of Beyonce’s many Yoruba collaborators to the forefront of the narrative. As a second generation Jamaican-American woman who grew up in the American South and is much closer to her Jamaican side, I don’t have much on-hand knowledge of the Continent. There are other critics and artists throughout the Black diaspora who are much more suited to get into those specifics. Part of embracing diversity is acknowledging that we cannot always be the expert.
Still, the general theme of the film is a narrative many Black people have heard before: We had a rich history before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, that history is still alive in Africa, and we owe it to ourselves to explore and celebrate it. Beyoncé verifies this message in voiceover: “Our ancestors hold us from within our bodies.” Whether we acknowledge it or not, our stories will still be there, and we will not truly know ourselves unless we seek them out. This framing unmistakably provides the film with a feeling that it is more for Black Americans than it is for the wider African diaspora. As this film was crafted through Beyoncé’s gaze, this perspective is unavoidable, but it did leave me with one question: With a project of this scope, with collaborators from all walks of Black life, culture, and experience, why is Beyoncé still the star of the show?
Black is King(2020) is now streaming on Disney+.