The critics have their say on the visual album rooted in ‘The Lion King’
When Beyoncé took a speaking role as Nala in the 2019 remake of “The Lion King,” she decided to delve beyond Disney’s Hollywood version of Africa. She added a new, gospel-charged song, “Spirit,” to the film’s soundtrack, and gathered an international coalition, featuring up-and-coming African songwriters and producers, to join her on a full-length album, “The Lion King: The Gift.” Now she has turned songs from the album into a film of her own. Critics for The New York Times discuss the imagery and implications of “Black Is King”. We reproduce excerpts of their views.
“The Lion King: The Gift,” Beyoncé’s companion album to the “Lion King” soundtrack, was a grand statement of African-diaspora unity, pride and creative power.
It presented modern African voices and contemporary African sounds — among the most kinetic productions in pop — not as exotic guests of their American collaborators, but as equals reinforcing each other, an international brotherhood and sisterhood.
“Black Is King,” Beyoncé’s visual album built on that album’s songs, goes even further. The deluxe version of “The Lion King: The Gift” only slightly extends the original album; its major addition is two versions (one with marching band-style horns) of “Black Parade,” a song that addresses current Black Lives Matter protests and much more.
Beyoncé is unquestionably the star of “Black Is King.” She’s presented as a panoply of archetypes — mother, boss, clubgoer, biker, queen — with an apparently infinite wardrobe that draws on ancient African iconography alongside extravagant haute couture. She places herself in glorious open landscapes, a mansion, a gritty warehouse and a leopard-patterned Rolls-Royce.
But she shares the screen with African and Black American faces: dancers, tribal elders, city hustlers, judges in wigs and robes, hoop-skirted debutantes and their beaus.
And she willingly lets herself be upstaged by African collaborators whose faces her American fans may not yet have seen, like Busiswa from South Africa, Salatiel from Cameroon and Yemi Alade, Tekno and Mr Eazi from Nigeria.
It puts her Pan-African solidarity incontrovertibly onscreen.
To describe the amount of fashion on display in “Black Is King” as an “extravaganza” or a “feast” or any of the other words used generally to convey exciting haute-runway content doesn’t even begin to come close to the reality of the production.
“Overwhelming” might be more like it. Beyoncé contains multitudes when it comes to artistic collaboration, and when it comes to designers, too. They span the famous and the little-known, as well as the globe.
An incomplete list of brands represented, for example, would include Valentino couture, Erdem, Burberry, Thierry Mugler, Molly Goddard and Marine Serre. Also newish names such as the London-based Michaela Stark, the Cote d’Ivoire-based Loza Maléombhoand the Israel-based Alon Livné.
There’s not even one look per song; more like dozens. Especially when you include the dancers and special guests like Naomi Campbell and Adut Akech.
It’s dazzling, but also carefully calculated. Because what so much muchness means is that no single designer ever reaches critical mass; blink and you miss them as one more lavish creation strobes into the next.
All of them exist to serve the vision of one woman; to elevate the imagery of Beyoncé, rather than their own.
A little over an hour into “Black Is King,” Beyoncé, with tears in her eyes, places a baby boy, wrapped in a blanket, up a river inside a reed basket.
Unlike the mélange of sounds — Afropop, dancehall, hip-hop, and soul — that I’d heard up to this point, the accompanying ballad, “Otherside” was such a sonic break from the high-tempo energy that I paused the stream several times.
I was moved by this scene of maternal sacrifice, for even though I knew the plot of “The Lion King,” I found myself hoping that this baby would survive the currents of the rushing river.
This is because that baby was never just a baby, and this story was never really simply the human version of Simba’s journey into manhood, much less kingship.
On the surface, this river bed scene is an update of that Old Testament story in which Jochebed, the mother of Moses, placed him in the Nile River to protect him from being killed.
But, the waters here also invoke the Middle Passage, with each ripple break recalling the fateful journey in which New World slavery, and America itself, was born.
Moses has always loomed large among African-Americans seeking freedom.
It is why Harriet Tubman sang the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” as a code to identify herself to those enslaved people who wanted to go with her to the Promised Land.
Much will be debated about whether “Black Is King” is an African-American fantasy of Africa, or a homage to those contemporary artists from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon and Mali with whom she collaborated, or whether the “other side” is the New World or a prodigal return of the descendants of the enslaved to the Old World.
In “Black Is King” her evident passion for African art keeps getting drowned in an ocean of melodrama.
I caught multiple direct quotations of the French fashion photographer Jean-Paul Goude — most overtly his cover art for Grace Jones’s “Island Life,” remade by multiple dancers here in the film’s best sequence, for the gqom banger “My Power.”
Other sequences seem to channel (to be generous) or crib (to be less so) the work of contemporary African artists.
The Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh is a clear influence on several tableaux of African models posing in bright colors with painted faces.
The film’s recurrent character of a topless, green-painted dancer seems to be borrowed from the Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku, whose 2018 procession “Festival of the Earth” brought performers slicked with green to the streets of Sicily.
The cinematography, throughout, is of a notably lower standard than the careful lensing of her self-titled visual album and, especially, “Lemonade.” The beachfront posing in “Bigger,” the opening number, feels uncannily like a perfume ad.
Traditional African art, or imitations of it, gets screen time too.
Backup dancers in “Find Your Way Back” sport kanaga masks topped with crossbars, worn by the Dogon people of Mali; “Ja Ara E” features a spirit in a full-body raffia costume, familiar from Mende masquerades.
And there’s a knowing flash of a catalog of Yoruba masks and sculpture by Robert Farris Thompson, the influential historian of West African art.
Late in “Black Is King” comes a maudlin apotheosis: The Simba stand-in, sporting a leopard-print dinner jacket, arises to heaven inside Johannesburg’s apartheid-era Ponte Tower.
It’s a sequence stripped of history, and confirms that we are nowhere near any contemporary African city; we are in a cartoon fairyland, still rooted in source material appropriate, per Disney, for children six years and older.
At least, then, there is Beyoncé’s endless string of citations, a rope ladder for those fans of hers ready to graduate into artistic adulthood.
What drives this lavish visual spectacle is its rush of bodies and how the whole thing moves: from swift changes of scenery, which are frequent yet never frenzied, to boldly spare moments of stillness.
In this celebration of the black body, there is music worthy of a thousand dances (and, judging by the credits, 11 choreographers).
In “Already”, we see the body on a pedestal, with sculptural moments that range from emphatic to dreamy as women stand on wooden crates.
They wear unitards that make it seem as if their bodies are covered in scales; finding a hypnotic groove, they shift their weight from side to side with elbows as bent as their knees.
They also pause in arresting, stationary balancing poses, whether kneeling or with a leg extended high to the side; when Beyoncé bends backward, the others wrap around her body like a pile of tangled snakes. In another scene, dancers from the DWP Academy in Ghana perform a driving unison line dance with the intense, passionate Dancegod Lloyd front and centre.
It points to the mix of African and American that Beyoncé seems intent on getting right.
The full article can be accessed at www.nytimes.com