At the start of Black Is King, the new visual album by Beyoncé that began streaming on Disney+ on Friday, the singer walks along an ocean shoreline looking beatific in a white gown as she holds in her arms an infant destined for greatness.
“Black is the color of my true love’s skin,” she says in a voice-over, referencing the Scottish ballad “Black Is the Color (Of My True Love’s Hair)” that Nina Simone transformed into a love song of Black pride in 1966.
And that’s what Black Is King is in 2020: A feature film-length celebration of Black heritage that uses as starting point the music that Beyoncé performed and produced for the 2019 computer-animated version of The Lion King, which was released as the album The Lion King: The Gift.
Black Is King, which is codirected by Beyoncé and her Parkwood Entertainment creative director Kwasi Fordjour, has been in the works for over a year. Along with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it’s the second buzzed-about blockbuster made available exclusively to the 50 million-plus subscribers at Disney+ in the past month.
It comes out at a moment loaded with cultural and historical significance. Following “Black Parade,” the protest song Beyoncé released in June as demonstrations swept the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, it’s a Queen Bey manifesto that arrives as the nation is facing a racial reckoning.
The highly stylized film repurposes occasional dialogue from The Lion King, in which Beyoncé voiced the lioness Nala.
Its loose narrative proceeds as a sumptuous visual tone poem — shimmery waterfalls, sublime desert vistas — that strings together lavish music videos into a fable of an orphaned prince’s return to reclaim what is rightfully his. “Life is a set of choices,” Beyoncé tells us. “Lead, or be led astray.”
The music clips showcase Beyoncé as a vocalist and dancer dressed in a dizzying array of too-many-to-count outfits in which she never fails to look fabulous. Nigerian artists Burna Boy and Wizkid also perform, as does Oscar-winning actress Lupito Nyong’o, Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland, and singer-producer Pharrell Williams.
Rappers heard from include Kendrick Lamar and Philadelphia’s Tierra Whack, who on Friday congratulated herself by tweeting “Whack Is King!!!!”
Black Is King is a family affair. Appearances are made by Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, her husband, Jay-Z, their daughters, Blue Ivy and Rumi, and son, Sir, to whom the movie is dedicated.
James Earl Jones, the voice of Mufasa in earlier Lion King iterations (and of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series available in its entirety on Disney+), shares voice-over duties with Beyoncé. “The great Kings of the past look down on us from the stars,” he sonorously intones. “Those Kings will always be up there watching you. And so will I.”
The movie stresses the need for Black representation in the world at large, and the importance of examining one’s inner life. “To live without reflection for so long will make you wonder if you really exist,” Beyoncé says, reading the words of Kenyan-born poet Warsan Shire.
Black Is King is Beyoncé’s third visual album, a medium she first excelled at with Beyoncé in 2013 and then perfected in 2016 with the acclaimed Lemonade, which Shire also contributed to.
It follows her 2019 Netflix special Homecoming, the opus filmed during her historic performances the previous year at Coachella, which she was the first Black woman to headline.
In the lead-up to release, a trailer for Black Is King was criticized for reliance on stereotypical images often seen in Western depictions of the continent. “There is so much more to Africa than lions and painting our faces white,” Botswanan student Ruth Chikuma told the Washington Post.
That criticism has merit: Beyoncé’s movie, which she produced with Ghanaian filmmaker and rapper Blitz Bazawule, isn’t much interested in the varied lives Africans lead today.
Instead, Black Is King aims — and succeeds — in presenting a carefully choreographed aesthetic ideal that means to remind Black Americans that the glory they carry inside is their birthright.