Mere hours after the near presidential funeral for Rep. John Lewis and days after the debut of an in-depth podcast series from Michelle Obama, Beyoncé leap into the arena of Black excellence again tonight with Black Is King.
Draped in mystery and expectations since the Disney+ project was announced last month, the Queen Bey orchestrated visual album is …well, rather excellent and exciting on various fronts. Designed to create debate, discourse and aesthetic iconography, the self-described reimagining of the ethos of 2019’s Beyoncé voiced live action Lion King serves as a poignant and ardent mixtape and a further evolution of an American artist.
Intentionally or not melding the inspirations of Cauleen Smith, Kara Walker, Octavia Butler, Fela Kuti, funk legend Betty Davis, and the 2018 published The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, among others, Black Is King sometimes swings semiotically for the profound, with varied results. Still, aided by co-director Kwasi Fordjour, who is the creative director of Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, the highly stylized and nearly 90-minute film that draws from last year’s Lion King: The Gift album is extremely successful when it pinpoints the power of spectacle in storytelling to manifest mythology – for both its creator and the film itself.
Coming just over a year after the Netflix premiere of Beyoncé fervent Homecoming concert film, the former Destiny’s Child singer has once again ascended the media hierarchy. Now at the almost dizzying Disney heights, Beyoncé finds herself bluntly tells an America still staggering from the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter floodlight on the realities of systemic racism: “let Black be synonymous with glory.”
With that, in 2020 terms, the Beyoncé co-written film is a strategically hyped moonshot exclusive to the 50 million and growing subscribers of the recently Emmy nominated House of Mouse streamer.
Yet, obviously suited and booted to bring in more paying sets of eyeballs from the legions of Beyoncé fans, Black Is King is a mildly calculated risk for the Bob Iger chaired company as the streaming wars demand an expansion of corporate comfort zones. Expressively the film’s plot, as it is, takes some Lion King and then weaves a very different Magic Kingdom than Disney fans have been used to for most of the company’s history. Placing a veneration of the Black diaspora and its origin tales at its pillar, the film is awash with depictions of colonialism, racism, economic disparity and ancient deities as a boy is flung Moses-style far from his family to find himself in a toilsome world.
Yet, Beyoncé is also Beyoncé the person, performer and the brand she has so solidly constructed over the decades. So, there’s an army of dancers, a reconstructed Stars and Stripes, some neon, and cameos by the likes of Pharrell Williams, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Campbell, and Kelly Rowland. Thematically, female empowerment, motherhood, the signifiers of fashion, the power of voice, and husband Jay-Z and the couple’s two children all make striking appearances too in this latest pastiche from the most nominated woman in Grammy history.
In that context, emblazoned across the globe from Africa to Europe and North America with various formats and backdrops, Black Is King also has a tremendous throwback quality. Similar in stature and design to Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker film from 1988, Black Is King is clearly structured to be an event release in this time of essentially endless options.
At the same time, from its first trailer last month to the Shatta Wale and Major Lazer co-starring ‘Already’ video dropped late Thursday, the up until recently secret project is a calibrated celebration.
A celebration in near constant motion of Black art and ancestry that undeniably provides a lift to viewers in an America brought low by pitched political division, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, and racially charged police brutality. Combined that with the massively mainstream platform of Disney+, whose acclaimed July 3 released Hamilton film now seems almost like trial run for Black Is King, and you have a cultural dominance almost unknown nowadays – regardless of how long it lasts beyond the weekend.
Which, with its urgency of right now, is partially the very point of the yearlong creation and its creator.
The ultimate 21st century power couple along with the Obamas, the Peabody winning Lemonade superstar and her hip hop powerhouse spouse Jay-Z have with stealth adopted the pre-digital aura of curated celebrity quality over the quantity of this explicit social media era. As the former First Lady methodically lets in the public to her life in her new Spotify series, Beyoncé continues to parse out her intersection with the culture to be probably the most private preeminent person in the world.
To that end, the greatest success of Black Is King, with all its ambitions, purposeful revelations and nods by Beyoncé, may be the conformation of its creator and star as the cultural Queen of our time. Or, as the royally threaded film itself says: “History is your future, one day you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”