In one extended sequence of the 2017 documentary “Angry, White, and American,” Black British journalist Gary Younge faces off with alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who, at one point, says, “Look at the life of any African American living in the United States. It’s far better than any African living in Africa.”
Translation: Slavery was good. His words are a thinly veiled justification for Black bondage and a warning to Black Americans to be grateful for how good they’ve had it here. Spencer is saying that by enslaving Black Africans and bringing them to the New World back in the 1600s, white Americans and Europeans were saving them from “a world of dread and fear,” to quote the overarching presentation of the entire African continent offered by Band Aid in the 1984 charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
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Beyoncé Knowles’ latest project, “Black Is King,” could double as a delayed response to such nonsense. The new musical film, which debuted July 31 on Disney Plus, is the belated visual companion to her soundtrack album, “The Lion King: The Gift.” Following the album inspired by the 2019 re-imaging of “The Lion King” by one year and 12 days, it breaks the traditional release pattern that worked so well for Beyoncé four years ago, with the simultaneous premiere of her musical film “Beyoncé: Lemonade” on HBO and her album “Lemonade.” But this timing couldn’t be more perfect. It arrives two months after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white cop in Minneapolis, as the ensuing global Black Lives Matter protests have possibly changed Black and white lives forever (and, on a less inflammatory note, with Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” sequel on the way). What the world needs now is love, sweet, love, and this colorful reminder of the power and glory of Black, here in America but even more so in Africa.
Despite its racially charged title, “King” is not just for Black people. It’s also for a society of non-Blacks who have been conditioned to think of people of African descent as being less-than, without their own history and with limited futures. Written and directed by Beyoncé with various collaborators, “Black Is King” reminds us that Black lives didn’t begin in chains. Those came relatively late, but they couldn’t erase a rich and complex past in the motherland. “History is your future,” Beyoncé announces toward the beginning. “One day you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
There’s no tangible history lesson in “Black Is King,” but it emphasizes the possibly forgotten fact that Blacks in Africa were thriving before whites washed up on their shores. Among the most egregious comments Spencer makes in “Angry, White, and American” is his assertion that whites have been more pivotal to the story of mankind than Blacks. Without the latter, the world would be just as it is, he insists. In other words, Blacks have contributed nothing. As ridiculous as that might sound, considering the white-centric history Americans are taught in school, it’s not surprising he would say that. Maybe some young Blacks even agree. “Black Is King,” if nothing else, will perhaps inspire them to learn about the history of their race and the ways in which it has shaped the world.
Although rooted in fiction, “Black Is King” offers glimpses of what Black life has been and what it can be, through the childhood and young adulthood of an African royal, through assorted African American images, and through a series of stunning costumes worn by Beyoncé and her cast of hundreds of Blacks. It takes us on a journey of remembrance and reinvention. It’s aspirational and more. It’s about the royalty Blacks were and the royalty Blacks continue to be, both in America and in Africa. This version of Blackness, unlike the one Hollywood constantly tries to ram down our throats, has little to do with white, except in the drapery covering Black bodies and the paint smeared across Beyoncé’s face during “Nile.” This is a Black planet where the only white person we see over the course of nearly 90 minutes is a white butler brushing young Simba’s teeth.
No, he isn’t administering dental hygiene to a baby cub. “Black Is King” re-imagines “The Lion King” with Black humans instead of animals. The 90-minute running time alternates between scenes of Simba’s journey from childhood to adulthood and stylized videos of songs from “The Lion King: The Gift.” It’s melting pot of gorgeous visuals (at times, it feels like Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” meets Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther”), world music (dominated by Black American and African artists), fabulous Beyoncé poses, and concise, on-point spoken-word poetry (sample interlude: “Lead or be led astray”).
As one might have come to expect from Beyoncé, it presents a cool, choreographed version of Blackness that the average Black American might not recognize except from music videos. Black is more than fierce poses and expensive red and purple costumes, though. It’s raw. It’s earthy. It’s real. It’s the eloquence and intelligence of everyday people. And therein lies the great contradiction of being Beyoncé. She clearly feels the pain of everyday Black people, but she’s kind of above it, too.
“Black Is King” works, however, because it’s more than just The Beyoncé Show. Yes, she’s frequently center stage, and it’s loaded with celebrity cameos, but neither feel gratuitous. Her husband Jay-Z, daughter Blue Ivy, and mom Tina Knowles make appearances, and so does Pharrell Williams and African artists like Yemi Alade, Lord Afrixana, and Shatta Wale, but when supermodel Naomi Campbell, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and Beyoncé’s fellow former Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland pop up during “Brown Skin Girl,” a tribute to Black women, it feels transcendent. That song is one of several interludes in “Black Is King” that put the genders on equal footing.
“Black Is King” excels as a celebration of Blackness in its many forms: Black women, Black men, Black children, Black motherhood, Black fatherhood, Black pasts, Black presents, and Black futures. There are several Biblical references — one sequence borrows heavily from the early life of Moses — but one of the most surprising aspects of it is the almost defiantly secular tone. “You can’t wear a crown with your head down. I can’t say I believe in God and call myself a child of God and then not see myself as a God,” a woman says in a voiceover around the halfway point.
It’s like Beyoncé is taking the faith so many Black Americans have placed in God (a by-product of a religion that whites hoisted on Black slaves in antebellum America) and urging them to invest it in themselves, too. Last year Kanye West declared “Jesus Is King” in the title of his gospel album. The name of this project feels like not just a play on the title of “The Lion King” but a challenge to think bigger than Kanye and live outside the religion box into which Americanization has stuffed Blacks. It’s a pretty groundbreaking idea in a culture that’s been conditioned to think of themselves as vessels of God, not equals.
“Black Is King” is persuasive but it isn’t perfect. The uneven music of the original soundtrack, though enhanced by the visual accompaniment, can still be hit or miss. But it all makes you wonder what Queen Bey the director might be able to accomplish with fully formed characters and a fleshed-out narrative. In a month that has seen her fellow superstars The Chicks and Taylor Swift dropping the most critically acclaimed work of their careers, “Black Is King” shows us that renewed life, like deaths, can come in threes. It gives us faith that for Beyoncé, for Black Americans, and for Black Africans, the best is certainly yet to come.
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