“Black is King”: The Lion Queen

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Beyoncé has made a music film for her album “The Lion King: The Gift”. Very nice! “Black is King” can only be seen with a subscription to Disney +.


Some pictures from “Black is King” (film still) seem to come from African tourism commercials. Then again there are urban choreographies that look like relatively ordinary R-‘n’-B video clips. © Travis Matthews

In the 24th minute of Beyoncé’s new so-called Visual Album Black is King, which is essentially a film adaptation of last year’s album The Lion King: The Gift is suddenly startled from the streaming wing chair. This happens during a scene in which six men carry the sophisticated artist in slow motion through an empty white museum hall, either as a funeral or coronation procession. “In the end I can’t even speak my own mother tongue,” one suddenly hears the voice of a young man from off-screen saying that he sounds very upset. “And if I can’t speak myself, I can’t think of myself, and if I can’t think of myself, I can’t be myself.” He hesitates. “Uncle Sam, tell me: If I will never know myself, how are you going to do it?”

Stop. What was that, who is it? You don’t have to search the internet for long until you come across a three and a half minute video that was uploaded to YouTube in October 2013: the poetry slam performance of a student named Joshua Abah, according to his own account USA born son of a Nigerian family. Uncle Sam he called his poem, which he lectured in Detroit at a conference for Teach For America, an organization that promotes college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is absolutely stunning.

In the video, the poet rolled up his light blue shirt sleeves, reports straight out of the conflict that he was repeatedly confronted with the discourse about his cultural roots, even though those were precisely what he was deprived of when he grew up in the USA. “Uncle Sam, my family has been African-American for generations,” said Abah. “You made me the first to be the other way around!” Then, at the end, there are the lines that can be heard in the scene in Beyoncé’s film. “Thank you“, he says, leaves the stage and has literally disappeared.

Joshua Abah has left nothing more than this small, digital trail. In any case, a writer does not seem to have become him so far, his video has just over 113,000 views, which is very little compared to the over 2.7 million clicks that the trailer of the Beyoncé film alone Black is King accumulated in a few days. Abah’s artistic statement radiates all the more power – a furious, yet not just a testimony to the frustration, the insane contradictions with which blacks of all genders have to continue to live, not only in the United States. Another cultural meta-level on what has been negotiated loud and louder for several months on the subject of racism and police violence.

It’s hard to say how the snippet from Abah’s poem got into Beyoncé’s new film, but two things are certain. One thing: we would never have come across him if it were Black is King would not exist. The other: One can assume that the majority of the audience will be able to listen to Abah’s poetic power. In the next scene you see Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s husband and probably the best rapper of all time being driven up in the back seat of a black Rolls-Royce – who likes to stop the film and google for unknown snippets of quotations? Abah’s name appears somewhere, surely in the credits. As is always the case with such large productions, it takes just under eight minutes, and the font is really very small.

Black is King can be seen on this Friday through the streaming service Disney +. For now, the film is only available here. It is a coup for the relatively young platform, which should bring her a large number of new trial subscriptions given the gigantic and thoroughly understandable popularity of the singer, songwriter, entertainer and director Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

It is not so easy to understand what kind of product Black is King is supposed to be. When Disney started in 2017, on a new version of its indestructible cartoon Lion King Beyoncé came to the project as voice actress and singer of the title song. In parallel with the theatrical release, it brought in July 2019 The Lion King: The Gift out, a kind of musical update. In turn, she has now made her own film, a full-length 85-minute music video (so there is no new music to be heard), comparable to the visual versions that have recently appeared on some Beyoncé albums. That the cinematic Lion-King-Refold in the attention-grabbing Corona summer could not be placed and was not already fired for the previous Christmas, for this the Disney Officials should thank several gods for safety.

The film should “celebrate the diversity and beauty of black cultural heritage,” Beyoncé explained in an Instagram message, emphasizing how intensively she had researched for the script and production, and had integrated regional teams in various African countries. All the more ridicule she received from the black community, especially the academic, than the trailer of Black is King went online, with its beach and sunset scenes, the re-enacted pictures of tribal rituals and rumored edification slogans. It is a shame that Beyoncé “uses her status to glorify an image of Africa that is rooted in power games dominated by the white eye,” wrote black feminist Judicaelle Irakoze on Twitter.

In her career, Beyoncé has built up such strong attitudes over many years on the topics in question, on all the questions, conflicts and necessities of action that affect life as a black woman in today’s USA, that such criticism should rightly bounce off her. She only released the song in June Black Paradewho immediately referred to the unrest after George Floyd’s death; She also explicitly supported the Black Lives Matter movement with other requests to speak.

In comparison, the new film says little about what should be due primarily to its nature: it remains essentially a music video. So far, this film genre has rarely emanated particularly differentiated socio-political discourses.

The story of Black is King is not that complicated, because there isn’t really one. At the beginning you can see Beyoncé putting a wicker basket with a baby into the water on an idyllic river bank; shortly afterwards a quotation from Stanley Kubrick’s for the biblical allusion to the story of Moses 2001, which shows how a black boy is shot to earth as a spaceman.

Scenes like from African tourism commercials

Of the “Circle of Life”-Kitsch from the old one Lion KingFilm got stuck in Black is King celebrated again extensively – partly in scenes that seem to come from African tourism commercials, then again in urban choreographies that look like relatively ordinary R-‘n’-B video clips. The mostly fantastic songs on the album The Lion King: The Gift are played through in various scenarios, there are no dialogues. Enough inspiring quotes are spoken off-screen with trembling voices to fill at least five desk calendars.

A statement is Black is King of course anyway. Not a large, state-supporting thesis, but rather a testimony of self-confidence, of nonchalance and the casual handling of great production luxury. And of course there is – in addition to the one described at the beginning shout-out For the forgotten poet Joshua Abah – even more moments in which Beyoncé leaves the huge stage to new or previously unheard voices: guest stars such as the rapper Shatta Wale from Ghana or the young talents Jessie Reyez, Tierra Whack and Yemi Alade. Even though her own contributions as a singer and dancer continue to take up a lot of space here, she also fulfills the role of curator of her art spaces in this film for the first time. It is no longer just about them. If something comes on Black is King remarkable, that’s it.

You may not see the film a second time after the 85 minutes are up. But those who were attentive take enough with them that can be reworked and worked up. Not the worst expectation an artist can make of her audience.

“Black is King” runs on Disney +.

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