A Guide to Beyonce’s “Black is King”

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On July 31st, Disney+ released Black is King, a visual album by Beyonce. It functions as a sort of movie-length music video that puts visuals to Beyonce’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was created by Beyonce for the release of last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, where she voiced Nala. Black is King follows the storyline of the film abstractly, and there are short audio clips from the film to help move it along. 

Because this is debuting on Disney+, which markets itself as a family-oriented streaming service, and is not a typical film in most regards, I thought it would be helpful to try something different. Instead of a normal review, I’d like to offer some observations and questions that can guide your viewing of Black is King, whether you watched it and would like to learn more about what messages and artistic reference you may have missed, or you’re a parent interested in watching Black is King with your children and would like to cultivate a fruitful discussion of the film (although the film probably won’t interest young children, I’d suggest pre-teen and up). 

As always, this isn’t an endorsement of the film or a suggestion that it is appropriate for all ages and families.

Initial Feelings after Finishing the Film:

  1. How do you feel? Did you like the ending? Were you engaged throughout the movie, or did some parts feel boring?
  2. Did you like it? Give some reasons for why or why not.
  3. Did you like the music? Did it make you want to dance? Do you think it is catchy?
  4. Do you think the visuals matched the music? How so? Did any shot or visual stick out to you as memorable?
  5. There are a lot of spoken-word sections (where Beyonce or others are talking over the music and visuals). Were there any lines that stuck out to you?
  6. Do you imagine visual albums/ feature-length music video films growing in popularity? What are the pros and cons of the medium?

Talking about Race and Black Identity:

1. Black is King was filmed in various African countries. The music is inspired by African music traditions, there are cameos by artists from all over Africa, the costumes were inspired by African fashions, and there are references to various African mythologies and legends. Recognizing, of course, that Africa is not a monolith but is made up of different countries and hundreds of sub-cultures, did the film spark your interest in learning more about Africa, or in any particular parts of African culture?

2. Black is King is explicitly about Black empowerment. It encourages Black people to embrace their heritage, to take pride in their culture and community, and to use their gifts and talents to help build a better future. In a world where Black people are often seen as disposable and are overlooked, Black is King relishes in presenting Blackness as complex, regal, intellectual, spiritual, dynamic, and worthy of respect and attention. Many of the songs are pieces of activism, such as “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” which lovingly reminds Black girls of their beauty, fighting against the very-real stigmas of colorism.

If you are Black, how did Black is King make you feel? (Parents- as with all of these questions, remind your kids that it’s okay to feel ambivalent). Did the film feel relatable, or like Beyonce was talking to you? If you are white or non-Black, how did you feel? Black is King has no prominent white or non-Black characters- was that strange or unusual for you? Did you feel like you learned anything new? Did you feel inspired?

3. In her seminal work Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry makes the argument that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Her argument essentially says that because the perspective of Black women has been silenced for much of American history, and stereotypes about Black women persist so much in popular culture, when a Black woman is at the forefront of a narrative, it is inherently political and even transgressive in white-dominant cultures. First, what do you think about this as a theory? Is it fair? And then second- Is Black is King political? How or how not? Does it feel political?

4. Throughout the album, and especially in the song “MOOD 4 EVA(the song with Jay-Z that takes place in a mansion), Beyonce talks about her wealth and opulence (fairly standard for celebrities). But through this and her other work, she seems to make this statement: Beyonce and Jay-Z, in being successful and rich, and showing that off, is a source of empowerment for all Black people. Because Black Americans are more likely to be of lower-income, it is inherently progressive and even radical to present Black people who are wealthy and successful, because it presents both an idea of what could (and even should) be, and presents a positive representation of the abilities of Black people.  

What do you think of this? Is Beyonce right? Can showing off wealth and opulence be empowering, particularly for minority groups? Is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (presented) lifestyle aspirational?

Homages and References:

1. Did Black is King help you appreciate The Lion King any more? Were you able to follow the storyline of Simba in Black is King, or was it too abstract? Do you think Black is King could stand alone, without the influence of The Lion King?

2. The opening sequence is a retelling of Exodus 2:1-10, where Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile to escape the slaughter of all the Hebrew boys. Moses is a large figure in African American music, especially in gospel songs that were sung by enslaved people to speak about freedom. What might Beyonce be referencing by showing it here? And are there any similarities between Moses and Simba from The Lion King?

3. There is a concept called the “Christ-Like Gaze” in film, outlined by this excellent article. It puts forth the idea that cinematography- the way the camera films subjects- can be used to look at people the way Christ looks at us. The three tenants of a “Christ-like gaze” in a movie is this: 

  1. The film sees people as being complex and filled with inherent worth and dignity. The movie doesn’t watch characters with cynical dispassion. Instead, a Christ-like gaze approaches the characters in warmth. Practically, this means the camera doesn’t objectify characters (such as focusing on body parts for sexual attention). There is often a focus on the facial expressions and eyes of a character. The camera is usually at eye-level with the subject.
  2. A Christ-like gaze means the film isn’t only concerned with the plot. The characters act beyond being used as plot devices. The story- and the camera- pays attention to little details and truths about life. Does the film take time to observe beauty? Are there any moments of quietness?
  3. Movies can (and should) depict suffering honestly, but a Christ-like gaze ends in hope. Hope is not blind optimism, nor is it the removal of consequences. But hope knows that there is a resurrection and healing coming.

So with all of that being said- does Black is King have a Christ-like gaze? Does the camera treat the Black bodies on-screen with care and present them as beautiful? How is the scenery treated? How do the choices in hair and costuming contribute to the presentation of Beyonce and the other stars? Is this an uplifting film, and in what regards?

Further reading:

NPR- “‘Black Is King’ Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity”

Vox- Beyonce presenting herself as African Goddess Osun

The Root: Some of the cameos in Black is King

Vox- Framing Black Bodies as Art in “Apeshit”

            –  Madeleine D.

 

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