Black is King: The Enduring Mystery of Beyoncé

Image: Disney

This article was also published by The Swanston Gazette on August 17.

This article must begin with the statement that the author is a white male writing within a patriarchal society that actively teaches and tolerates racist attitudes against people of colour.

If you haven’t seen Black is King, you should. Currently only available on Disney +, it may need to stay on your future watch list until it becomes more widely available. Based on the 2019 LP The Lion King: The Gift and written, directed and executively produced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, it’s an artistic tour de force that will alter cultural depictions of African and African American society for decades to come. Watching it, you can almost hear the voices of future documentaries that will inevitably credit Black is King with helping to shake and shape their creative mindset.

Being the synergistic lovechild of the Knowles-Carter and Disney empires, the first offering of a $100 million, 3 picture deal, the 85-minute opus arrived to deafening market fanfare despite COVID-19 providing the ultimate distraction. If you lived on planet earth the week of July 31, chances are, you knew Black is King had landed. The critical response has been unanimous raves. It’s already the most highly rated Disney + program in the platform’s short history. However, given the scale and vision of the project and the exposure it’s received, the cultural response has been notably quiet. Black is King should have very noisily shaken the zeitgeist and it’s worth examining why it hasn’t.

Black is King comes by way of 2019’s live action remake of The Lion King. It could be timidly considered Disney’s mea culpa for taking a story set in Africa, populated by African and African American artists, and placing it under the creative control of caucasian director and producer, Jon Favreau. Beyoncé’s vision, gently guided by its parent project, is infinitely more luscious and interesting.

A single viewing is almost overwhelming given the fabulous imagery on display. Black is King borrows from a glorious array of iconography, everything from Exodus to Esther Williams. Its explosive style is Fela Kuti by way of Fellini. But comparisons are pointless. This is an artwork very much in and of itself. The influencers do something unlikely for a 21st century spectacle, they fade into the background, completely surpassed by something new.

But at some point, the spectacle becomes oppressive, especially when you consider last month American cities were burning. This is where Black is King arguably falters. Its cultural depictions blend African heritage with African American culture in a manner unprecedented for a pop culture project. It’s timing and its tone amidst 2020’s Black Lives Matter activism have diminished the impact.

Beyoncé is royalty, or the nearest pop culture equivalent. The millionaire wife of a billionaire husband, she is a supermodel, a musician, a choreographer, a fashion designer, an entrepreneur, a pop industrialist, a feminist and one of the most recognisable social activists on earth. While her pop predecessors (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Prince) never let their activism get in the way of a good number 1 hit, expectations of an artist like Beyoncé are heightened.

In the first half of the 20th century, Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, to name a few; used their music to burn the misery and suffocation of racism into mainstream culture. Be it “Strange Fruit,” “Four Women,” “Young Gifted and Black” or “A Change is Gonna Come,” in the 21st century, society is still often looking backward to find expression for the pain and damage caused by racism.

Beyoncé’s Lion King co-star, Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) achieved a moment with the single “This is America.” Western culture stopped short, confronted, and dazzled. Lynchings, mass shootings, materialism and Jim Crow were all on display in a music video both arresting and foreboding. Black is King has a totem, macho villain and a blistering mansion scene that would serve a purpose if you weren’t aware that Beyoncé probably owns bigger ones.

The passion on display is maternal. The films anger is a mood not a statement. In the closing number, gospel anthem “Spirit,” we finally get to see the diva unleash her voice after thirteen tracks of guest stars and songs that might prove challenging to lesser singers. The risk is real that the entire magnificent effort might suddenly appear to be a catalogue of Beyoncé fashion plates. The world within the visual album is far less angry and ugly than the world without. It’s beautiful and unsettling.

It can only be an African American audience that decides what it wants to hear from artists about their own culture. Black is King is a celebration; ambitious, sophisticated, glamorous and dramatic. It will change attitudes and challenge minds. The talent on display is an embarrassment of riches, but it doesn’t confront the problems facing people of colour in the United States or any other Western ethnocentric nation today.
It’s probably unreasonable to expect any artist to try. The challenge would be monumental; and yet, so is Black is King. As racial divides double down, as global audiences look further and further afield for artistic expressions of their anger and their pain, you can’t help but look at a talent like Beyoncé and wonder, aren’t you angry too?