"Black Is King" continues Beyoncé's immortalizing of the Black American experience through art

Like Queen Bey says, this new visual album is "a whole mood" . . . for right now.

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 2, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Beyonce in "Black Is King" (Travis Matthews/Disney+)
Beyonce in "Black Is King" (Travis Matthews/Disney+)

There are times when a person doesn't realize how drained, hot and thirsty she is until she sees water. "Black Is King" triggers that realization in its opening with a wide shot of a river, its gentle current carrying a basket. The biblical allusion to the story of Moses is plain to see, only in this context the untethered basket is a visual metaphor for a people . . . but also, for escape.

Filming for "Black Is King," Beyoncé Knowles-Carter's visual album accompaniment to her 2019 release "The Lion King: The Gift," took place in the second half of last year after the film's release but before the culture at large erupted with protests in the name of Black Lives Matter.

It arrives at a time of unfortunate inevitability for any social justice movement, when forces align against it to disrupt its progress, at a moment when demonstrations of empathy are teetering over the line into something like an obsession with footage of Black suffering.

That river answers all of this along with the surrounding images of lush forests cutting to shots of people in bright colors, faces tilted skyward; a tight shot on the visage of an elegant elder; then an aerial gaze from over the ocean, floating in to shore where Beyoncé awaits in a diaphanous white gown. "Bless the body, born celestial," she says in voiceover, "beautiful in dark matter."

A few beats later she adds, "You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let Black be synonymous with glory."

Here, one of the world's most recognizable artists uses the framework of an established story created by one of Earth's most recognizable brands to create, as the press materials read, "a celebratory memoir for the world on the Black experience." But its arrival at the end of a particularly brutal July for the planet and for Black Americans in particular provides a much-needed reminder that abundance and greatness is as much our birthright as anyone else's.

The Disney+ debut of "Black Is King" comes at the end of a month that opened with the debut of the movie version of "Hamilton," and though they may be thematically dissimilar what they have in common is a familiarity of story and sound. Those most likely to be drawn to see "Hamilton" probably had every line and verse of the soundtrack memorized before seeing the play.

The BeyHive and "Lion King" obsessives have had a year to listen to "The Gift," not to mention embrace and uplift the empowerment themes beating in the heart of songs like "Brown Skin Girl," which became last summer's tribute to women whose complexions have long been diminished by a colorism- infected culture – and by that I mean Eurocentric Western culture as a whole – that favors fairer skin tones.

But it's another experience to see its melody and poetry informing a debutante's ball where women with deep cocoa-toned complexions spin in elegant floor-length gowns as Beyoncé herself playfully swans around in a separate scene that also features Lupita Nyong'o, Naomi Campbell, models Aweng Ade-Chuol, and Adut Akech alongside her former Destiny's Child bandmate Kelly Rowland and her daughter Blue Ivy.

This is a loving embrace of a segment of women popular culture tends to overlook, evocative of the film as a whole.

"Black Is King" zooms between South Africa and Western Africa as well as leaping between New York, Los Angeles, and locations in London and Belgium. And if this stylistic jet-setting feels dizzying, then you haven't been keeping up with the ubiquitous nature of Black culture. Beyoncé may be highlighting an international roster of artists in her music on an album that pulses with Afro-pop vibes, but the seamless intermingling of tradition, present and future tells the viewer: Black is worldwide and like the jaunty song says, it is "a mood 4 eva."

Given the disparate styles with which "The Lion King" is transformed into a metaphor for a people's story, and the fact that its story drives the plotting of "Black Is King," there will no doubt be some temptation to deem it less original in execution than 2016's "Lemonade." That visual album took the world by surprise and became that spring's anthem for Black womanhood, as well as a means of metabolizing and voicing the long subsumed anger that Black women are forced to hold back.

But "Black Is King" is as carefully realized a construct as Beyoncé's previous videos and visual albums with the sort of vibrant cinematography and international scope tailor made for the Disney brand. (Her Netflix film "Homecoming" provides a revealing window into her process, and could be useful prerequisite viewing for this new work.)

The film further burnishes Beyoncé's reputation as a thoughtful visual artist alongside her unmatched skills as a stage performer. And while "Black Is King" demonstrates a vision of crystalline precision, its tamed sprawl of dancers, actors, musicians and scenery demonstrates the artist's curation prowess above all.

Although she is listed as the director, Beyoncé credits longtime collaborator Kwasi Fordjour as co-director alongside Ghanaian-Dutch filmmaker Emmanuel Adjei, hip-hop artist and filmmaker Blitz Bazawule and Belgian artist Pierre Debusschere.

But from the opening frames the true superhuman of the piece is costume designer Zerina Akers who, it must be noted, shares her credit with no one. (Surely it must have taken a legion of hands to string countless pearls into crowns and transform Beyoncé into a singular galaxy of sparkle rendered in sequined, beaded, and rhinestone-encrusted bodysuits and gowns. And this only references a couple of outfits among scores of them.)

Few individuals can pull together a diaspora's worth of imagery, music and styles, and unify them in a way that reads one way to the wider audience and can be viewed very differently to another. But what we see and hear only works because an army of talent coalesces around a single creative force.

Indubitably in the coming days there will be a cascade of analysis of the hidden symbolism and cultural references embedded within "Black Is King." One obvious tip of the hat is a Busby Berkeley homage placing the performer at the center of a spinning mandala of synchronized swimmers in a pool outside of a mansion. The entire scene is a gaudy flex, and as if to drive that point home, the diva's husband Jay-Z co-stars in that sequence.

But its materialist opulence is precisely the point – this kind of Hollywood Golden Era grace was never afforded to Black people back in the day, and if Beyoncé can make that part of her visual festivity alongside rapier-sharp rhymes and Afro-futurist tableaux, then why not?

A dust storm comes into play near the end of the film's 85-minute run, an acknowledgement of trials and shadows Black folks have always faced, endured and come through. As it is filmed and staged even this has a stunning beauty to it and is an appropriate segue into a climactic resolution that fits the Disney story, and it would feel equally as appropriate if "Black Is King" weren't connected to that existing intellectual property.

But so what if it is? "The Lion King" is a tale of stolen legacy, mending, and restoration – the same motifs that color the history of the people to and of whom "Black Is King" speaks.  

"We have always been wonderful. I see us reflected in the world's most heavenly things. Black is king . . . we were beauty before they knew what beauty was."

To see this is to witness that truth take shape, and it is a proud and beautiful sight.

"Black Is King" is now streaming on Disney+.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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