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With ‘Black is King,’ Beyoncé enters her Africa period with a tale as old as Shakespeare

Like Nina Simone before her, Beyoncé submerges herself in Africa and rises triumphant

Nina Simone has long been a source of inspiration for Beyoncé, and in Black is King, Bey’s newest visual album, she repurposes Simone’s lyric, “Black is the color of my true love’s hair,” changing it to: “Black is the color of my true love’s skin,” while also following in Simone’s footsteps to Africa.

Though Simone exists in our collective imagination as a tragic symbol of Black radicalism, the lady knew how to let loose. She loved Black people and she loved to have fun, and in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1974, she found both. Simone located a neglected piece of herself in Africa, then stripped off her clothes to get even closer to it.

As the artist perhaps best known for “Mississippi Goddam” sang on “Liberian Calypso”:

Party start movin’ all around
I was so happy to be in town
And as I slowly began to strip
Everyone thought I was so hip

I danced all over the place you know
All over the ceiling, all over the floor
Up in the balcony, all around
I felt so good just being in town

Today, no one marries decadence with a love of Blackness quite like Beyoncé. Unlike Simone, who ultimately went broke singing songs calling for Black liberation, Beyoncé has managed to convince Disney into paying for an entire film built around Black lives not only mattering, but thriving, complete with a white butler brushing her royal progeny’s teeth.

In the magical realism of Black is King, now streaming on Disney+, Beyoncé makes her own pan-African, pan-Diasporic odyssey to the continent and beyond, shooting in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Grand Canyon. The 85-minute film is stitched together by the music of her 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was released with Jon Favreau’s 2019 computer-generated image remake of the line-drawn animated Disney classic. (Disney owns The Undefeated.)

In a recent essay for Electric Lit, Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts wrote about the trade-off that often accompanies Black creatives’ rejection of the white gaze, the very thing that torched Simone’s career. “I often wonder what it means that we (the collective ‘we’) are so desperate for the validation of the mainstream,” Lewis-Giggetts wrote. “But then I remember that, for some, it has less to do with validation and everything to do with access and resources.”

Beyoncé (center) in the lush dream sequence of “Mood 4 Eva” in Black is King. In the credits, Beyoncé reveals that the film is basically a love letter to her son.

2020 Parkwood Entertainment

Beyoncé remains an outlier in her ability as a Black woman to both command access and resources. Then she uses them, say, to pepper her new film with images of herself as the Madonna, surrounded by cherubs brandishing her Grammys. May we all possess the freedom to be so nakedly self-indulgent! As Burna Boy says during the introduction to the song, “Ja Ara E”: “Our brothers and sisters are walking around with crowns in their back pockets because of an environment of repression.”

The loose narrative of Black is King is built around the story of The Lion King, which is basically Hamlet, minus Gertrude’s treachery toward her husband and son, Ophelia’s madness and the whole play-within-a-play bit. In the movie versions, an alienated son (Simba) must fight his murderous, power-hungry uncle (Scar) for his rightful seat on the throne while also battling his own self-doubt. It’s Willy Shakes all the way, baby.

In Black is King, Beyoncé refashions Gertrude into an ancestor, spirit guide and doting mother. Unlike William Shakespeare’s character, she’s not threatened by her son’s ascendance. Instead, she functions more as a benevolent regent, and in doing so, highlights the chief concern that draws a line between white and Black motherhood, regardless of royal status. “You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying,” writer and activist Audre Lorde famously said.

In the credits, Beyoncé reveals that Black is King is basically a love letter to her son. “Dedicated to my son, Sir Carter,” she wrote. “And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.”

The heartbeat of Black is King is legacy. Beyoncé fashions a vibrant, mystical world for herself, and populates it with, among others, her own children, Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi, her husband Jay-Z, her mother Tina and her best friend, Kelly Rowland. She is the high priestess of an empire, attempting to give her prince the world. In the video for “Apes—,” the Carters temporarily colonized the Louvre for their own ends. In Black is King, Bey turns her sights to an entire continent and gifts it to her children.

The project is a melange of pan-African spirituality merged with Beyoncé the brand — she now has a visual repertoire so deep she’s able to call back to her own previous work while simultaneously offering up a course in anthropology. She also strays where she pleases.

Beyoncé has long used her music videos to indulge her fantasies, which leads us to the images of the fuschia-clad singer surrounded by Black synchronized swimmers in the film’s “Mood 4 Eva.” Here, Black is King takes a detour through Simba’s id. It’s the most materially obscene sequence in the whole film, with Jay-Z playing a grown-up Simba parading through an estate where someone exists to cater to his every whim.

The film is built around the sacredness of water as a source of life, purity, hope and rebirth, but that doesn’t mean a person can’t also take some time to fashion herself as Black Esther Williams. And why not? “To live without reflection for so long will make you wonder if you even truly exist,” Beyoncé intones before providing a fantastical hall of mirrors in which Black children can see themselves as the holders and stewards of power.

Beyoncé included director Melina Matsoukas, singer Kelly Rowland, model Naomi Campbell and her daughter Blue Ivy in a debutante ball scene for “Brown Skin Girl” in Black is King.

2020 Parkwood Entertainment

There are some stumbles in Black is King. Beyoncé’s line reading, whether it’s Warsan Shire’s poetry (also a key part of Lemonade) or snippets of her as Nala, can sound more overwrought than solemn. The inclusion of other dialogue from The Lion King, namely Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) counseling a forlorn Simba about having “no worries,” feels tonally inconsistent.

But Black is King’s lush visual grandeur far outstrips its moments of awkwardness. It marshals the full power of Beyoncé’s celebrity to push Afrofuturism further into the pop culture mainstream, focusing its klieg lights on directors Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jake Nava, and Dafe Oboro and recording artists Busiswa, Tiwa Savage, and Moonchild Sanelly and treating them as equals, not bit players. If Black is King ignites a flame in a child to seek the words of Octavia E. Butler, Samuel Delany or Nnedi Okorafor, I’d call that a win.

Black is King is neither as personal as Beyoncé’s libidinous self-titled 2013 film, or as raw as her excavation of betrayal and trauma in Lemonade. Does it dwell in monarchical phantasmagoria, dripped in bejeweled excess? Sure. But so does its source material. Given a choice between dreary Elsinore or Beyoncé’s sun-soaked Africa, I’m going with Africa. Neither is a utopia, but one sure has a lot more Black folks.

What Black is King does best is fling open the doors of imagination and possibility for Black children in a way that cannot be taken for granted, especially in a world that is so comprehensively structured to deny that Black children matter, much less dream of worlds other than their own. Step into your power, the film urges everyone who is young, gifted and Black. Hold your head high as you navigate the universe. The ancestors will always bring you back to Earth.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.