Review: ‘Black Is King,’ starring Beyoncé

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

“Black Is King” 

Directed by Beyoncé, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jake Nava

Culture Representation: This visual album of Beyoncé’s original songs for the 2019 “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack features a predominantly black cast (with a few white people, Asians and Latinos) primarily representing life in Africa in a musical format.

Culture Clash:  Many of the songs’ lyrics and the movie’s narration are about pushing back against fear, bigotry and self-doubt.

Culture Audience: Beyoncé fans are the obvious target audience for this movie, but “Black Is King” should also appeal to people who like to see visually stunning musical numbers set to contemporary R&B music.

Beyoncé (center) in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

People already know that Beyoncé is capable of making a collection of memorable an impactful music videos, so it’s not too much a surprise that she has done it again with “Black Is King,” a visually intoxicating and emotionally empowering movie that celebrates self-confidence and Afro-centric culture.

Whereas Beyoncé’s visual collection for her critically acclaimed 2016 album “Lemonade” was her feminist response to issues going on in her personal life at the time, “Black Is King” is more of a rousing anthem directed at generations of people, especially those whose ethnic roots are in Africa. There are no conversations in “Black Is King,” but the messages are loud and clear.

Because “Black Is King” is a visual representation of Beyoncé’s 2019 soundtrack album “The Lion King: The Gift,” the songs themselves (and some of the music videos) were made available a year before the full “Black Is King” movie was released. But seeing all of these songs together as musical numbers in “Black Is King” puts the soundtrack in a whole new light.

“Black Is King” is not a traditional movie, since there is no real plot. Rather, it’s an atmospheric journey of eye-catching sights, sounds and philosophical thoughts. The choreography? Spectacular. The hair and makeup? Gorgeous.  The costumes? Unforgettable.

Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele portrays Beyoncé’s fictional son Little Simba throughout “Black Is King.” At the end of the film, this dedication appears on screen: “Dedicated to my son Sir Carter. And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.”

The movie has narration that includes lines from the 2019 “The Lion King” movie, which had Beyoncé as the voice of warrior lioness Nala. But the most intriguing narration comes from a script whose credited writers are Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow, featuring poetry by Warsan Shire.

James Earl Jones provides the opening voice narration as he intones in “Balance (Mufasa Interlude)”: “Everything that you see exists together in a delicate balance. You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling creatures to the leaping antelope. We are all connected in the circle of life.”

Beyoncé also voices several messages of Afro-centric pride, including “Black is the color of my true love’s skin” and “Let black be synonymous with glory” and “Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”

There are also calls of empowerment, such as “Life is a set of choices. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it.” And she also speaks about the importance of representation: “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist.”

It wouldn’t be a Beyoncé visual album without cameos. They include members of her immediate family: husband Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter); their children Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi; and Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles Lawson. “Brown Skin Girl,” with Saint Jhn and Wizkid featuring Blue Ivy Carter, celebrates inner and outer beauty and includes visual appearances by Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and Kelly Rowland, who is one of the original members of Destiny’s Child with Beyoncé. Jay-Z, Knowles Lawson and Rowland can also be seen in “Mood 4 Eva.”

And several artists on the audio soundtrack can be seen in “Black Is King,” including Jessie Reyez (“Scar)”; Nija, Busiswa, Yemi Alade, Tierra Whack and Moonchild Sanelly (“My Power” ); Shatta Wale (“Already”); Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi (“Keys to the Kingdom”); and Salatiel and Pharrell Williams (“Water”).  Meanwhile, Beyoncé hands over the spotlight to Lord Afrixana, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi, who perform “Don’t Jealous Me.”

Noticeably absent from “Black Is King” are Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer and Childish Gambino (also known as Donald Glover, the voice of adult Simba in 2019’s “The Lion King”), who are featured artists on the audio soundtrack’s songs but don’t make visual appearances in the “Black Is King” movie. Lamar can be heard on the duet track “Nile,” while Major Lazer is featured on “Already.” Childish Gambino/Glover is a featured artist on “Mood 4 Eva.”

Speaking of “Mood 4 Eva,” it’s one of the highlights of “Black Is King” and it has explosion of beauty that’s both raw and luxurious. (And there’s also a scene of Beyoncé and Jay-Z holding hands that’s reminiscent of their famous 2018 “Apeshit” video that was filmed in the Louvre Museum.) “Don’t Jealous Me,” another standout segment, conjures up African tribal imageries that includes giant yellow python around the neck of certain people, including Beyoncé. “Water” is pure glam, with Beyoncé in outfits ranging from a stunning magenta gown to flared ’70s-styled denim with Rapunzel-length hair.

Although “The Lion King” takes place in Africa, and “Black Is King” is very Afro-centric, “Black Is King” was actually filmed around the world: Africa, New York, Los Angeles, London and Belgium. However, the movie prominently several African actors in the story segments, including Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odede, Stephen Ojo and Mary Twala.

Not everyone likes Beyoncé’s music. Not everyone likes the 2019 movie version of “The Lion King.” However, “Black Is King” is a perfect example of why Beyoncé is a superb entertainer who’s a major influence on pop culture while speaking out on issues that are important to her.

Disney+ premiered “Black Is King” in July 31, 2020.