When last year’s super-CGI remake of The Lion King was released, the response was decidedly lukewarm. It was a box-office smash, but many Beyoncé fans were left wondering why the star took part. She was already so much bigger than a few lines as Nala in Disney’s cartoon cat story.
The Gift — Beyoncé’s companion record, a showcase for contemporary Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian and Cameroonian artists — had a more favourable reception, although it was criticised for its lack of North African contributors and remains her lowest-selling album. Upon the launch of the trailer for Black Is King, Beyoncé’s cinematic adaptation of that album, critics were primed, and the 80-second clip prompted accusations of a “Wakandafication” of Africa, in reference to the fictional kingdom from Marvel movie Black Panther.
But the singer has clearly done her homework: when Black Is King arrived on Disney+ on Friday, viewers couldn’t but be amazed by the amount of research and artistic labour that went into the feature-length project. Filmed in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Belgium, England and the US, it was, Beyoncé says, a year in the making. And though she is named as writer, producer and director, the credits comprise more than 1,000 collaborators, including Ghanaian-born co-director Kwasi Fordjour and Nigerian-British filmmaker Jenn Nkiru.
Perhaps the most dazzling achievement is the costumes, assembled by Beyoncé’s stylist Zerina Akers. For those underwhelmed by the offerings of digital fashion week, Black Is King unfolds like a sumptuous fashion feast, featuring a seemingly infinite wardrobe with new looks popping up at a dizzying rate. The effect is almost overwhelming, and one that rewards multiple viewings.
As well as big names like Burberry and Valentino, Akers worked with independent black designers: there’s the crystal-encrusted catsuit by d.bleu.dazzled in ‘Find Your Way Back’, the geometric jacket by Cote d’Ivoire-based Loza Maléombho in ‘Already’, and monochrome looks by Senegal brand Tongoro Studio during ‘Brown Skin Girl’, to name just a few.
Beyoncé, who also created a directory of black-owned businesses with Akers, is selling collaborative merch, too, including the money-print Duckie Confetti pyjamas she wears in ‘Mood 4 Eva’.
In an age where many stars entrust a single brand with curating their look, Beyoncé embraces a small army of them. Above all, Beyoncé is the brand, and the designers together form the chorus to her singular vision.
Homecoming, the 2019 film chronicling her landmark Coachella performance, vividly honoured the traditions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, while Lemonade, released in 2016, offered a window to Beyoncé’s inner life and a powerful look into the pleasures and pains of black womanhood.
Black Is King reimagines the story of The Lion King, and in many ways provides a corrective to the dire remake. Beyoncé does away with the creepy photorealistic animals — though unfortunately keeps some of their dialogue — and instead delivers a vibrant celebration of blackness and a beautiful exploration of family, heritage and legacy.
Criticisms persist, including that Beyoncé reduces Africa to a mishmash of the West’s favourite stereotypes (the huts, the animal hides, the face painting) and that her emphasis on “royalty” romanticises a pre-colonial Africa. “One could wonder are Africans humans with dignity if they are not kings and queens, draped in gold and diamonds?” asked Judicaelle Irakoze at Essence.
Given the album is intended as a companion to The Lion King, the royal optics make sense. Beyoncé says Black Is King but, as author and blogger Luvvie Ajayi wrote, “it isn’t about ruling others. It’s about tapping into the royalty that we possess.” The film doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, political treatise or history lesson, nor does Beyoncé claim to speak for an entire continent. No one expects Sally Rooney to tell the stories of all Irish or indeed European people.
This is Beyoncé’s highly stylised dream of Africa, a fantasy and cinematic spectacle designed to elevate black beauty. “My hope for this film is that it shifts the global perception of the word ‘Black’, which has always meant inspiration and love and strength and beauty to me,” she told ABC News.
It may shift the perception of Beyoncé herself, too: if there was any lingering doubt about her capabilities as a true artist, Black Is King settles it. The film’s primary weakness — its struggle to mould the narrative of The Lion King to suit Beyoncé’s style — only cements her position as an uncontainable force. Beyoncé is at her best when she is simply, magnificently Beyoncé, not constrained by Disney or anyone else’s framework. With Black Is King, she has reclaimed pop culture’s throne once more. Now, the question is, yet again: How does she top this?