“Black is King” – A Lavish and Problematic Beyoncé Gaze

Beyoncé’s Black is King is opulent in visuals. I loved the panoply of archetypes, Beyoncé as mother, as boss, as biker, as queen. I loved the infinite wardrobe and all the colour. The editing, unfortunately, does not allow one to savour a single shot for more than a few seconds. It is a chaotic mix of ideas, genres, sounds, myth, folklore, Hollywood. The transitions feed an incoherence that refuses to go away throughout the film. Nothing settles in this reimagination of The Lion King.

“Brown Skin Girl” is luminous. Beyoncé has been running with the black skin narrative for some time now. An offshoot of colourism debates. If you are black or brown skin or whatever shade, Beyoncé is extoling the virtues of brown skin, “your skin just like pearls.” She does a good job at browning herself in the film too. “Melanin, melanin, my drip is skin deep”, you know.  The magical Lupita and Adut are captured as she sings of skins that glow like diamonds and nappy curls. Absolutely beautiful watching Blue Ivy sing.

How deep Beyoncé loves Africa is questionable. Beyoncé has never performed in Africa beyond charity events in South Africa. She performed in South Africa in 2004, as part of a charity concert for late former president Nelson Mandela’s 46664 foundation, and recently in 2018, with Jay Z, during the inaugural Global Citizen Festival in commemoration of Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Black is King throws in a few top African artists Burna Boy, Wizkid, Shatta Wale, Tiwa Savage, or models like Adut Akech to give it the African feel. While we try to unchain African cultures and open up doors to diversity, American superstars like Beyoncé deliver a distorted and amalgamated vision of Africa. The monolithic portrayal of an outsider looking in does more harm than good.

Black is King is more like Kenye West’s Jesus is King – masters of the gospel of opportunism. Black is King exploits Beyoncé’s newfound political voice, while Jesus is King exploits West’s newfound salvation. Beyoncé preaches the gospel of black self-love, of the tropes of ancient African histories and heritage, for a predominantly diasporan market. Black King streamed on Disney+,a platform not even accessible in African countries.

The poetic musings departs from the clarity and fluidity of Lemonade and comes off cheesy, not even “Mood 4 Eva” which is at best a Knowles-Carters a-floss and a-flex, boasts better lines. Certainly not winning the award for the creme de la crap, but still. “Power” was good tho.

I love that she includes diverse African creatives, but I also can’t let go of the feeling that she simply cashes in, thanks to her superstardom, after other black artists have done the difficult work.

You’re the key to the Kingdom

You’re the king inna the Kingdom

Oya come sit pon your throne

In the press release noted that Black is King sought to reinvent the lessons of The Lion King for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns.” “The trips of black families over time, telling the story of a young king’s journey through betrayal, love and self-identity. Guided by his ancestors, the father and the love of childhood, he gains the virtues necessary to claim his home and his throne. Black Is King is a statement of great purpose, with lush images celebrating black resistance and culture. The film highlights the beauty of tradition and black excellence.”

But like the Burundian Judicaelle Irakoze writes, there is always danger in romanticizing pre-colonial Africa. The glorification of kingdoms often erases the reality that even back in the day it wasn’t exactly a paradise. Not every Black person in African countries had the potential of being born into a royal family or accessing its benefits. Kingdoms are not about freedom. It is possible to dignify Africans without the allusion of kings and queens.

That said, Black is King is rich in beauty, skins and style, and lavish visuals, a motley of African languages and a sprinkle of afrofuturism – a valuable reimagination of Lion King and an addition to the growing representation of blackness in the highest citadels of global art.

Hear Beyoncé sing mababu katika mawingu.

I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t uncomfortable with some dyed in the wool stereotypes and portrayals about Africa.

Most of the time I was like, what Wakanda shit is this?

2 thoughts on ““Black is King” – A Lavish and Problematic Beyoncé Gaze

  1. Poor Lion King: starts life as a nomad’s story, a Maasai one told to visitors to the Maasai Mara around the campfires, and it becomes a Disney behemoth being forced to generate valuable crap. Just like the Kopi luwak coffee, the partially digested cherries, which have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet now held in captivity. A thing of nature and life turned into painfully commodified shit that generates cash for just a few.

  2. As an African I felt used by this film. I hated it so much I couldn’t watch beyond 20minutes. Apart from what you liked about it (I liked nothing!) , I agree with your analysis. Thank you for putting it out there.

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