Few pop artists in history transcend the boundaries of the industry and create their own powerful narrative that reshapes music as a whole, but Beyoncé makes it look effortless. She has been topping charts and wowing fans for around two decades now, but I’d argue that ever since her self-titled album in 2013, she has reached another level of artistic vision unlike any other major pop artist. Lemonade is arguably one of the best pop albums of this century and Homecoming is easily the best concert film in recent memory (I will argue for both of those). She returns to her recent tradition of visual albums with Black is King, a film realization of her companion album to Disney’s The Lion King remake. This record, titled The Gift, took the Hollywood-ized African themes of The Lion King and applied it to the modern Black experience. Black is King is an expansion of this concept, and it creates a visual world that follows the story of the Disney classic while also expressing a much more stimulating narrative of empowerment.
Black is King is yet another example of Beyoncé’s songwriting expertise, while also showcasing the amount of visual perfection she demands with each project. While this is never as coherent or as iconic as Lemonade or Homecoming for me, it provides more than enough content for Beyoncé fans to be busy interpreting for the next year. Nearly every set and image is some kind of symbolism or representation of Black culture in the eyes of Queen B. The amount of thought put into this project is immeasurable, and it must have taken years to conceptualize. All of Beyoncé’s recent visual projects have these qualities to them, and as long as this level of technical mastery drips off of her work, she will continue to be at the top of the A-list.
When it comes to a straightforward narrative, Black is King is a bit lacking, but purposefully so. Those who are looking for a powerful story or an immaculate plot will be disappointed and are probably better off watching another, less imagery-based film. Anyone who hasn’t been a fan of Beyoncé in the past will by no means be converted; she is not achieving anything here that is completely different from her other visual albums. However, with the right audience, this film is an expansion on her previous work and presents a specifically Black vision in a clearer fashion. She uplifts popular Nigerian musicians whose work, in my opinion, has gone unrecognized in America (Wizkid, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi). There are also appearances from popular musicians (Pharrell Williams, Jay Z, Jessie Reyez) and celebrities (Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland) that are peppered throughout.
One of the best aspects of Black is King, besides the fantastic music, is the costume design. From the very first song (“Bigger”) to the last (“Spirit”) every single outfit is gorgeous and fits in with the aesthetic of the songs beautifully. One of the most visually stunning moments arrives near the end of “Mood 4 Eva,” where Beyoncé recreates patterns used by Esther Williams in MGM films of the 40s and 50s in a pool behind a mansion. The choreography is reliably excellent and the amount of bright primary colors used in this sequence create a feast for the eyes. The costume design is by Zerina Akers, a beautiful designer that deserves far more IMDb credits than she currently has.
Along with the costumes, the dazzling cinematography adds to all other aspects of the movie and fits the connotations of each song. The standout scene from the three cinematographers credited (Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant) is during “Keys to the Kingdom,” which features a neon-lit trip to the club. For a pop musician, Beyoncé sure knows her way around filmmaking, given she also co-directs the movie along with performing in it.
While this isn’t a review for The Gift, the fantastic music cannot go without mentioning. The lyrics are meaningful and passionate, with the African music influences in many songs speaking volumes. Some of the best songs will make residence in your head for some time, such as “Brown Skin Girl,” a song that should be heard by every single woman of color who is pondering their validity and importance in today’s climate. Furthermore, the best parts of this movie have everything to do with the message Beyoncé expresses and not with the constant callbacks to The Lion King. Disney clearly wants to stamp their name all over this, but the imagery and themes are far more interesting than anything offered by the mediocre Lion King remake, so the frequent quotations can sometimes distract from the talent.
Black is King is yet another fantastic Beyoncé production regardless. It will give fans everything they could possibly ask for and give critics something more to analyze for the near future. This is similar to Hamilton in that Disney Plus is lucky to have their name printed across the poster, for this will bring them plenty of viewership and acclaim. So far, Hamilton, The Mandalorian and Black is King have made the streaming service worth the price of admission, and hopefully future projects will continue this upward trajectory. While this visual album won’t be for everybody, it more than succeeds with the target audience. Beyoncé continues to slay, and this will be another highlight in her packed catalogue.
I give Black is King an A-.