'Black Is King': Film Review

Beyoncé in “Otherside” from the visual album BLACK IS KING-Publicity-H 2020
Parkwood Entertainment
A sense-dazzling showcase whose visuals sometimes outshine the music.

Beyonce presents an uplift-themed Disney+ visual album interpreting last year's record 'The Lion King: The Gift.'

An entry into the "visual album" format stuffed with so much visual stimulation you want to stare at clouds after watching it, Beyoncé's Black Is King is a sometimes thrilling showcase for African artists whose work fuses brilliantly with that of Americans who have roots on the continent.

A companion to an album that was inspired by a film based on a children's animated adventure later turned into a blockbuster Broadway musical (got all that?), this is a project that deserves to be free from any link to The Lion King but instead keeps reminding us of those ties; audio clips from Jon Favreau's 2019 film are dropped in at regular intervals that feel like commercial breaks. You can hardly blame Disney for wanting to put their stamp all over this, and to show it exclusively on their Disney+ service; but the emphatic branding seems a bit at odds with the music's expansive, support-all-Black-youth message.

The work is clearly labeled "a film by Beyoncé," and the credits begin with "Directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter." But then there's a co-director title card for Kwasi Fordjour, and a third screen listing seven others credited as "directors." The latter group makes sense, given that this is a quilt made of videos for songs from last year's The Lion King: The Gift. But these videos are hardly interchangeable, and it would be nice to know which filmmaker created which.

While they're not interchangeable, the videos share more than enough in style and sensibility to be viewed together like this, linked by segments that hint at an allegorical narrative instead of telling a story. Those interstitial spaces are where most of the Lion King quotes appear; as the film goes on, references to Simba's journey are joined by cooing encouragement from Beyoncé and, later, from unidentified fragments of discussions about Blackness and becoming "a king."

Promotional materials say Black Is King "reimagines the lessons from Disney’s global phenomenon for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns." Viewers who'd rather reinvent democracy than monarchy — doesn't Disney's King T'Challa have a handle on that satisfying but questionable empowerment metaphor? — may be calmed somewhat when these voiceover clips attempt to redefine royalty in terms of proudly supporting one's community.

Fans will already know these songs well, so won't be surprised that, when it comes to providing on-theme musical uplift, "Brown Skin Girl" stands out. Casting Black and brown women in a debutante scenario more commonly associated with pale, privileged wives-to-be, the song's video co-opts the elegance of such affairs and redirects it, with beautiful women encouraging each other instead of competing for Lord Wattsisbucket's eye.

Welcome though it is, this is far from the most exciting part of the show. Strewn across the album's other videos are so many charismatic talents you can hardly keep track. Individual dancers scream with personality in the sequence for "Keys to the Kingdom," which envisions a wedding in a church painted in the colorful geometric patterns of Zimbabwe's Ndebele people. Other songs get group choreography, like the herky-jerk movements of sparkle-clad dancers in the Afrofuturistic "Find Your Way Back." "My Power" puts a familiar Beyoncé formation in a set full of black-and-white patterns that stun the senses as the camera moves.

Bey even gets a Busby Berkeley pool scene at one point, in the sequence for "Mood 4 Eva" — a sore-thumb scene whose focus on mansion living and leopard-print Rolls Royces reminds one of the time Beyoncé and Jay-Z rented out the Louvre for a video because they can.

Whether the vague mythology of the album's overarching quasi-narrative or the affirmations the singer reads throughout have the desired nourishing effect on young Black people, only time will tell. The concrete, in-the-street concerns of 2020 may have older viewers wishing for the potent focus of something like James Brown's "Say it loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud!"

Artistically, King is less persuasive as a coherent statement than Lemonade. But Black Is King may live its ideals more successfully than it preaches them: Though the record was full of big-star collaborators, the visual album lets lesser-known (to most Americans) artists shine. Nigerian singers Tekno, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi crackle in "Don't Jealous Me," dominating an underworld soundstage where Beyoncé mostly admires from afar. Burna Boy, also from Nigeria, sounds unbeatably cool on "Ja Ara E."

And of course, all those non-Beyoncé directors and the twelve credited cinematographers, none of them household names, deliver top-shelf riffs on innumerable film-history and fashion references while making room for the influence of African folk traditions.

Can it be true that only one person, Zerina Akers, is responsible for the crazy array of costume designs seen here? The lavishness of texture and color, often placing luxurious materials in natural settings, would by itself be enough reason to watch Black Is King in full, instead of just hitting Spotify and waiting for the songs you like to pop up.

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Parkwood Entertainment
Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odede, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala
Director: Beyoncé
Directors: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jake Nava
Screenwriters: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow
Producers: Jeremy Sullivan, Jimi Adesanya, Blitz Bazawule, Ben Cooper, Astrid Edwards, Durwin Julies, Yoli Mes, Dafe Oboro, Akin Omotoso, Will Whitney, Lauren Baker, Jason Baum, Alex Chamberlain, Robert Day, Christophe Faubert, Brien Justiniano, Rethabile Molatela Mothobi, Sylvia Zakhary, Nathan Scherrer, Erinn Williams
Executive producers: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Erinn Williams, Steve Pamon, Janet Rolle, Nathan Scherrer
Directors of photography: Ryan Marie Helfant, Mohammaed Atta Ahmed, Michael Fernandez, Danny Hiele, Nicolai Niermann, Malik Sayeed, Santiago Gonzalez, David Boanuh, Erik Henriksson, Laura Merians, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Benoit Soler
Costume designer: Zerina Akers
Editors: Andrew Morrow, Maria-Celeste Garrahan, Haines Hall, Tom Watson
Composer: James William Blades, Melo-X, Derek Dixie
Casting director: Anissa Williams

85 minutes