Truly great stories can be told without specifics. They survive not because of the specific words used to recount them, but because their characters, arcs, and lessons are universal. The Lion King is a story about talking safari animals, but Simba’s journey of being shamefully forced from his home, losing his identity, and returning to take his place in the circle of life is packed with powerful themes that resonate beyond one lion’s tale.
Beyoncé’s visual album Black is King, streaming now on Disney+, recontextualizes the metaphor of Simba’s journey to that of the African diaspora — removed from the homeland, denied the memory of our royalty, and rising to retake our cultural legacy. Set with music from Beyoncé’s curated 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, Black is King is an invitation to revel in the diversity and beauty of the African continent and a celebration of thriving through survival.
Black is King casts live actors to play their analogues in The Lion King’s myth. There is a young boy playing the lost and future king, a darkly glamorous mentor who exiles his young rival, a queenly woman whose power to revive the young king’s dormant royalty stems from acknowledging her own, and voiceover from James Earl Jones as Mufasa (no one else can be Mufasa). With Black actors in these roles, Black is King transforms the story of a lion into a treatise on blackness and legacy, one where we don’t have to wait to be kings.
Black is King transforms the story of a lion into a treatise on blackness and legacy, one where we don’t have to wait to be kings.
Early in Black is King’s hour-and-a-half run time, Beyoncé states in a spoken interlude that she will “let black be synonymous with glory.” Every moment of the visual album drips with that precise intention. It is glorious to watch an all-Black cast of actors, dancers, guest stars and album collaborators (including Pharrell, Tierra Whack, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Campbell, and Kelly Rowland) perform amidst the film’s breathtaking locations and sets. It’s glorious to watch the beats of The Lion King play out in live action, modernized metaphor. It’s glorious to see Beyoncé’s trademark flawlessness in hair, costuming, and choreography on display every single moment she appears. Black is King presents Beyoncé’s glory as a shared glory, as the birthright of her people.
Each individual element of Black is King is committed so perfectly to screen that it’s tempting to try and puzzle out the work hours that went into creating each costume, each crisp second of choreography, each elaborate braided hairstyle, and the genius it took to put them all together. The math would require a supercomputer. Beyoncé has proven hundreds of times over that she is an artist no parallel, but Black is King is evidence that her holistic impeccability is more than the sum of her individual arts. She sings, dances, directs, produces, and acts, yes, but above all those things she Beyoncés.
That verb, to Beyoncé, is the act of being the only artist to exist at her level. She is magical, which perhaps explains why watching Black is King feels like a summation of Black girl magic, ancestral magic, and the magic of the royalty inside our DNA.
Black is King is streaming now on Disney+.
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