Black Is King is a beautiful yet incomplete love letter to the Black diaspora
On July 19, Beyoncé released a trailer for her forthcoming visual album Black is King, a filmic companion to her 2019 Lion King soundtrack, The Gift. The two-minute clip quickly set the internet ablaze, delighting the singer’s notoriously loyal fandom while also refreshing the at times contentious conversations around Afro-diasporic relations that efforts such as Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther had already brought to the forefront. Some expressed alarm at the potential for the film to exploit elements of the African continent while others warned of the danger of flattening African identities into a neatly packaged monolith to be consumed by the Western world.
The full movie, which runs just shy of 90s minutes, is an intriguing narrative tumultuously swept along by stunning visual beauty. While Beyoncé is credited as the creator of the film, much of her grandiose vision was conceptualized and executed by African talents such as Ghanaian musician, director, and visual artist Blitz Bazawule; Ghanaian-American photographer and director Joshua Kissi; and Ghanaian-American Parkwood Entertainment creative director Kwasi Fordjour. Others, like Nigerian photographer Daniel Obasi and Lagos-based studio anti.design were involved in several of the project’s vignettes. So too were Ivorian designer Loza Maleombho, whose distinctive garments were previously featured in the “Formation” music video, and sisters Soull and Dynasty Ogun of L’Enchanteur, an Afrofuturist jewelry studio based out of Brooklyn. Beyoncé’s intentional involvement of talents with a pre-existing connection to the continent not only platformed African creatives in a meaningful way, it also served as a calculated shield against critiques that nonetheless arose after the film’s release.
Most notably is the assertion that Black is King positions itself as a love letter to Africa while failing to acknowledge the true breadth and depth of the continent. In the same way the soundtrack’s impressive collaborator list largely skips over East Africa, instead choosing to focus most heavily on West African countries (specifically Ghana and Nigeria), and South Africa, so too does much of the visual narrative. Many of its references — from Beyoncé channeling Yoruba orishas to the appearance of Dogon masks, adinkra symbols from Ghana, and leopard-skin associated with Zulu traditional ceremonies — are centered in very specific parts of an extremely vast continent.
Despite some of its shortcomings, there is tangible power behind the film’s purpose. It seems to spawn from a genuine and in some ways generational-specific desire to weave a connective thread between a Black diaspora that often feels splintered, particularly where identity and common experiences are concerned. It also centers the complexities of Blackness (no matter what capacity you view it in), as something both ethereal and beautiful, but also rich in unspoken histories that do not start or end with enslavement. “Personally, I feel that this was really more of a gift to people of African heritage living in the diaspora,” explained Jennifer Boyd and Pablo Bruhn of the studio anti-design, whose work is primarily featured in the "Brown Skin Girl" portion of the film. “Seeing Black people represented positively is sending them a message that there is a place where they belong and can be proud of, especially now with all of the racial tension in the world.”
What Black is King serves as then is a jumping-off point. Global audiences, particularly African-American audiences, are hungry for a connection to African histories (the story that set its creation in motion isn’t based in any real African narrative; it’s a fictional account of lion monarchy, usurpation, and redemption that loosely follows the same storyline as Hamlet). It’s important for viewers to have access to these tales as they truly are, both outside of the framework of white supremacy and without the sheen of the fantastical. In truth, there is much to work with — real heroines like Yaa Asantewaa, a formidable Ashanti queen mother who single-handedly led a rebellion against British colonialists, exist. As too do fascinating oral histories with their own touch of the otherworldly, like the story of the golden stool, which Yaa Asantewaa was called upon to defend (according to legend, it fell from the sky). Or even the tale of the man-giant Asebu Amenfi, who is said to have established the Asebu kingdom in Ghana after fleeing Egypt.
“Be bigger than any picture they framed us to see,” Beyoncé challenges Black viewers in The Gift song “Bigger.” As celebratory, uplifting, and beautiful as Black is King is, if we are truly to see past the pictures framed for us, it requires asking ourselves what it means to love our Blackness (and Africanness) when it isn’t royalty, and when it is simply a direct reflection of a reality where not all of us were kings and queens. Understanding this truth and centering it will be important, especially as Black creators explore the borderline between fantasy, history, and reality.