Something good came out of Jon Favreaus’s one billion dollar grossing strange CGI remake of The Lion King after all, Nigerian film critic Wilfred Okiche notes. Beyoncé mythological remix Black Is King is a splashy celebration of black ancestry, spirituality and excellence that cuts across cultures.
The nature of the African-American engagement with Africa has always been a contentious one, especially as it concerns identity and shared experiences. On the one hand, descendants of slaves forcefully taken from the continent for many years have felt the need to downplay their connection to a home they never really knew. All the better to fit into an America that didn’t always recognize their right to exist. On the other, there is the fetishization of Africa as a rural vast land where people live on trees and must be saved from endless tribal wars.
Cinematically this engagement, which gave rise to Hollywood material like the borderline offensive jokes in John Landis’ Coming to America (1988), has evolved to accommodate more thoughtful reflections of displacement in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018).
Beyoncé’s Black Is King, an offshoot of her 2019 music project The Gift for the Jon Favreau remake of Disney’s classic The Lion King opens a new chapter in the Africa-diaspora relationship with inclusivity as the central theme. Through a reimagined story of Simba, updated with Biblical and Shakespearean references, Beyoncé pays homage to Africa and attempts a connection with the motherland. She doesn’t just swoop in to establish this though. She builds a bridge by facilitating a dazzling parade of talent as collaborators. One that includes among others, Blitz Bazawule (The Burial of Kojo), Jenn Nkiru, Kwasi Fordjour and the poetry of Warsan Shire working behind the scenes in service of Beyonce’s vision.
And what is this vision? A splashy celebration of black ancestry, spirituality and excellence that cuts across cultures. The musical influences are mostly West and South African but Black Is King undertakes a more inclusive visually resplendent odyssey that connects more regions and extends to diaspora-heavy cities in America, the United Kingdom and Belgium.
Existing in a continuum that blurs the lines between film, music video, photography, video essay and art installation, Black Is King is a feast for the eyes. Black bodies are lit to perfection and photographed in several edifying ways. Beyoncé’s designer wardrobe changes – each stunning look flashier than the last – complement the film’s detailed choreography and expansive production design. The knowledge of and deployment of African culture is quite extensive. Dogon masks, jollof rice, leopard skin, Yoruba deities, sangomas and Adinkra symbols all make symbolic appearances.
Interestingly, Black Is King doesn’t seek to flatten out several narratives into a single digestible monolith even if there is a focus once again on royalty. Simba’s journey to self is democratized, reflected in every person that chooses to take the visual journey. This is in keeping with the elective nature of monarchies in several African communities
Black Is King is a gift for people like Beyoncé, diaspora descendants of people of African heritage. The pan-African bonafides provide a place to feel connected and a documentation of histories that go way beyond enslavement. One that is relevant at this time considering all of the racial tension in the world. In America it is the murder of George Floyd, #BlackLivesMatter protests and a president that is incapable of offering unity. In Europe there are hot button issues of immigration, border politics and waves of nationalism. In parts of Asia and the middle east, black people are considered second class citizens and treated as expendable.
But there is something here for Africans as well. The creatives who collaborate with Beyoncé on the project get to shine on the giant canvas that she provides. Nigeria’s Yemi Alade steals the show with her energy in ‘Don’t Jealous Me’. South African performer Busiswa more than holds her own on the all-female formation of ‘My Power’. And Ghanaian dancehall Shatta Wale takes aggressive lead on the song ‘Already’, charging a game Beyoncé to keep up with his manic energy. Hint: she does. Beyond that, the project inspires a sense of pride even as it revels in the beauty of African cities, the continent’s musical legacy and the cultural heritage.
It is important to note that for all of its good intentions, Black Is King is also a reactionary work. For many years, thanks to colonialism and imperialism, Africans have been conditioned to envision themselves as a people lacking agency. Politicians failed woefully at enshrining a definitive aspiration beyond the various independence struggles. Through film, music, theatre and other creative outlets, Africans have been putting themselves back in the driving seat. These gains more than anything else have been responsible for drawing the attention of Beyoncé and her Disney collaborators.
Speaking of which, it is indeed a small act of defiance on Beyonce’s part that she got Disney, that bastion of globalized capitalism, to dole out what must no doubt be a tidy sum – plus creative control – to deploy her off-the-path reimagining of one of their most beloved family properties. It is certainly one of the more interesting decisions Bob Iger’s risk-averse Disney has committed to. Beyoncé is after all the woman who sank a cop car in her ‘Formation’ video in 2016, incorporated a Black Panther salute into her Super Bowl halftime performance the next day and turned her Coachella headlining gig into an unabashed celebration of blackness.
This decision may not seem obvious at first, but it is a winning one. Ultimately, Black Is King, a lavish and celebratory visual documentation of blackness will ensure that the film that inspired the music, Favreaus’s one billion dollar grossing strange CGI remake isn’t entirely consigned to the dustbin of history.
Something good came out of it.