REVIEW: Black is King (2020)

blackiskingThere is a very good argument to be made that I, a white middle-aged Australian man, am not qualified to critique Black is King. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s self-described ‘visual album’ premiered earlier this year on streaming service Disney+. This 85-minute film acts as a filmed companion to her 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, and seeks to present an allegorical vision of African culture and identity, the African diaspora, and a celebration of ‘blackness’ among that diaspora – primarily in the USA, but also internationally. I am not black, so no matter what I think of this new musical feature it is worth acknowledging upfront that it is not for me.

What I will note is this: one can view the work superficially and find a stunning collection of music videos, boasting strong choreography and eye-popping costumes. Beyoncé has already well-cemented her status as a hugely popular and stylish pop singer, and if nothing else Black is King provides 85 minutes of song, dance, and strong imagery to entertain her significant fan-base. The work pulls together contributions from numerous African and black directors, designers, artists, and dancers and feels vibrant, colourful, and ultimately joyful. If Beyoncé is your thing, then Black is King will almost certainly be your thing too. It forms part of a long tradition of pop music films, including the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help, the Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

What is this particular film actually saying, though? In the middle of the film there is a dance sequence – one of many – with Beyoncé and her backup dancers dressed in strategically placed colourful cloth. There is plenty of cleavage and leg on display, portrayed with sexuality and power. They balance baskets on their heads as they gyrate, reflecting a familiar image of African women carrying baskets of food or laundry from river or village to home. Women’s work is re-imagined as sensual dance. A pop singer with an estimated net worth of US$400 million is allegorising a Sub-Saharan experience where the average salary (excluding South Africa) is less than US$350 a year. It’s a moment of clarity in the middle of a luxurious musical production that shatters its idealistic pretence and leaves behind a hollow, crassly commercial shell.

This does not feel like a film about individual African nations, cultures, and ethnic communities. It feels like a celebration of a fictionalised, blended “Africa”, picking and choosing elements of style, fashion, culture, and tradition, remixing it together and aggressively sexualising it for mass consumption. Its vague net is so loosely defined that it briefly includes elements of South Asian race and culture in among the African elements. Let us not forget that, aside from being a celebration of Africa and blackness, Black is King is a project intended to drive subscribers to Disney+ and to sell copies of an album. It is literally a visual companion to the spin-off album of a computer-generated remake of a 1994 cartoon. A more commercial art object is difficult to imagine.

It is not impossible to authentically address the African experience while simultaneously serving a commercial agenda, but it is more difficult. Despite its numerous attractive qualities Black is King does not feel like it successfully threads that needle. Quotations from The Lion King are littered throughout this newer work, and the narrative broadly reflects the same story. The stated artistic intention of the work does not intersect cleanly with its money-making purpose; at times it actively feels exploitative. ‘A film by Beyoncé’ claims the promotional poster, even though Knowles-Carter is one of nine credited directors, four writers, and 22 producers. The entire enterprise screams of product as much as of art, seemingly inspired as much by Marvel’s Black Panther as it is by an actual African experience. I suppose it is a clear signifier of the rising interest in and enjoyment of Africa’s culture within the USA: Disney has, after all, already managed to commodify and sell it.

At least it all looks and sounds pretty great. There are some genuinely fabulous aesthetics working here, and some catchy songs. It is broadly as entertaining as watching a string of glossy music videos on a Saturday morning. It is also, however, an empty promise. It is a rich person’s fancy. One could almost argue, given the colossal gap between Beyoncé’s lifestyle and that of those whose identities she has chosen to co-opt, it is tantamount to cultural appropriation. This is a deeply misguided vanity project.

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