Beyoncé’s new movie is big, bold and bodacious, but what does it express about the Africa she portrays? Innumerable questions arise, thudding inside my skull to the rhythm of jovial afrobeats…
I really enjoy watching old music videos on YouTube. It reminds me of simpler times: before CGI, insanely big budgets and, well, YouTube.
Lately, I’ve been tripping on Kate Bush. Wuthering Heights sees her as a cosmic, cherubic teenager wafting alone in a field. In Army Dreamers she’s running through a forest with a blonde kid, stopping only to mesmerise with her phantasmal, milky eyes. In Breathing she’s stuck in a Zorb until freed to join some green-faced virologists in a lagoon.
Those are all delightful, but my favourite has to be Babooshka. Shrouded in a black veil, she cavorts, improvised and imperfect, with a double-bass; like a mime artist bride’s first dance at an enchanted wedding reception. Then, the chorus kicks in. Wailing, she transforms into a steampunk warrior temptress, back-lit by a heavenly white glow; her hips uttering truths even Shakira’s could never profess to know. There is one camera, one room, one performer, two outfits, and one special effect — zoom. It’s lo-def, simple, cheap, and in its way, purely spectacular.
Fast-forward almost exactly forty years and, NOW STREAMING ON DISNEY+, Beyoncé releases Black is King — an ostentatious, opulent, enormous, 85-minute antithesis to the austerity of Babooska. In keeping with BEYONCÉ and Lemonade, it’s a “visual album” to accompany her (I suppose we need to call it now) “audio album” — The Lion King: The Gift. Both are inspired by last year’s CGI-update of the classic 1994 animation, following a similar storyline.
The film opens onto an “African” river. A wicker basket floats downstream, interspersed with shots of colourfully clad “Africans” in a variety of settings. James Earl Jones resonantly reiterates that “we are all connected in the great circle of life”. Under a pastel sunset, Beyoncé materialises on a beach in a flowing, white mille-feuille dress, holding a baby. There is spoken-word poetry, earnestness, shots of her daughter, a man painted blue. A group baptism ensues. Church organs sound. “You’re part of something way bigger”, she exclaims as she paints the face of a pre-pubescent boy.
The imagery steeply escalates, every colour luminescent and outfits increasingly innumerable. Beyoncé in horse-print… on a horse. Beyoncé in a painting… as Mother Mary. Beyoncé in water, dripping with red rope. It turns out we’ve been in heaven. Or space. Or somewhere beyond both — blacker and more kingly. The boy takes off, becomes a comet, hurtling towards earth. Is this in 4K? 8K? 16K? Did they shoot it in Bey, not K? Whatever the definition, it is high. Babooshka, it is not.
This is irrepressible Beyoncé, lofty Beyoncé; the terrestrial goddess, progenitor of pop.
To make the film, Queen Bey — who also wrote, directed and produced — drafted in a wealth of creatives from across Africa. It was shot on location in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Musicians from those countries populate the screen alongside Jay-Z, Pharrell, Kelly Rowland, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and Beyoncé’s own mother and children. It is luscious, grand and… Wow. One can only imagine how much it cost to make. Such is its scale, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
First off, a word about Beyoncé’s “Africa”. It is relentlessly proud and picturesque in a way perhaps no other film about “Africa” has ever been. It is cool, hot, sensual, and sincere. It is appealingly traditional yet ambitiously modern. It’s Africa filtered first through the American kaleidoscope, then again through a diamond encrusted Beyoncéscope.
But as my Ghanaian mother relentlessly reminded people, Africa is not a country. It is the second largest continent on earth. It is not at all a singular culture. To chop up a kilo of its prettiest bits and squish them all into one tasty, palatable burger would be horribly reductive. One can fairly assume that patty-fying Africa is not Beyoncé’s intention, but if Black is King’s aim is not to represent a real-life place, what is it intended to do? In Beyoncé’s own words from a June 29 Instagram post:
“I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”
So it’s an idealised agglomeration of cultural concepts in service of Beyoncé’s ideas about her true heritage, and by association, those of anyone that identifies as black. Pastiche-ifying Africa. Fair enough.
But as I watch, innumerable questions arise, thudding inside my skull to the rhythm of jovial afrobeats:
Where is the line between race and culture? Where does glorifying one’s ancestry end and appropriating a foreign culture begin? What legitimate connection does a billionaire American musician have to the African continent (where she has rarely visited and even more rarely performed)? Does being a dark-skinned American, 10–15 generations removed from your African ancestors, deliver a free pass to portray a place of 1.3 billion people you have barely been to?
What if Beyoncé was white, but born and raised in Ethiopia, and she made this same film? Is Beyoncé, in fact, the best — or only — person to show a positive version of modern “Africa” to a global audience? Is she creating a falsely romanticised version of heritage for Black Americans or a necessary interpretation of the continent they have a natural, genetic attachment to? Is animal print and people in trees cool or offensive? Is it cool or offensive to present all black people as the descendants of Kings and Queens? Is Disney+ available anywhere in Africa and will it ever be?
Is this just a pop music video, geared towards Beyoncé and Jay-Z adding to their billion-dollar empire? Or is it a deeply meaningful, glamorous exposition of what it means to be black, whether diasporic or native to Africa? Is Black, in fact, King?
I can’t answer most of these questions because I could argue both sides ’til the Beys come home. Black is King is simultaneously superfluous and necessary; respectful and insulting; clever and vapid. It’s completely absurd, and completely logical. Part of me is appalled, but the majority, absorbed; addicted.
I can’t look away. It’s the Beyoncé Paradox.
Many of these contentions arise because Beyoncé is so often front and centre; royally, religiously presented. In fact, the scenes without her — those dominated by West and South African rappers, singers, and nameless dancers — offer the most exhilarating, authentic, and refreshing moments. Had she chosen to purely direct rather than star, or stayed a little more in the background, her broader message may have been elevated. Instead, with her plumb in the middle, Africa is necessarily re-invented in Beyoncé’s image; moulded to fit the Beyoncé narrative — not that of the global Black diaspora, “Africans”, or nationals of its 50+ territories, hosting 2000+ languages. In this world, Beyoncé is King, albeit a benevolent one that invites her African subjects to participate in amplifying her personal glorification, ancestral identification and iconographic myth-building.
This is the artist’s prerogative, but ultimately, attributing deeper meaning to the film than it being a fundamentally superficial exercise in branding Beyoncé as Disney’s African Queen feels pretentious. Arguable, but pretentious.
That said, just as a joke is only offensive if it is insufficiently funny, when something is as beautiful, stimulating, and cool as this, does anything else matter? If people are happy to pay $7 a month and find some fantastical personal solace in it, what harm does it do? In the end, it’s a big, sexy, pop music video. Entertainment. Treated predominantly thus, it is, in its way, purely spectacular.
So watch it. While Lemonade had far deeper meaning because of her proximity to the subject matter, Black is King is still Beyoncé’s most stunning video to date. Its form and existence raise challenging questions about race, heritage, culture and society, but in the end, the sheer scale and sumptuous visual onslaught will inevitably win out.
Streaming now on Disney+.*
(*Not available in Africa)