An Afro-Futurist adaptation of Disney’s 1994 classic The Lion King, “Black is King” is a cinematic musical production directed, written and executive produced by American singer-songwriter Beyoncé. The film is a visual companion to the 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift,” an album curated by Beyoncé in conjunction with Disney’s live action remake of The Lion King, released in the same year.
“Black is King”
“Black is King” stars 7-year-old actor Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele as Simba. Following the traditional narrative of the Disney classic, Akinmurele brings the character of Simba to life. Through the beauty and power of his flesh, Akinmurele distorts the viewer’s perception of this story as an animated fiction invariably challenging the viewer to see real Black boys as kings. In fact, in switching the baby cub for the body of a Black boy, Beyoncé tells the troubled history of African Americans; a people exiled, lost and displaced from the continent and community of Africa. Donald H. Matthews explores the implications of this in his book Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature. He writes,
Captivity, forced migration, and denigration were but some of the prices paid by Africans. The greatest price, however, would be paid by those of the African diaspora to come, who would pay with the destruction of their way of life and their sense of communal identity.
Prior to such a depiction The Lion King was primarily perceived as a story about a young cub’s coming of age and return to the throne in spite of family dysfunction, tragedy, and separation. Through Beyoncé’s Afro-Futurist reimagining of the story the viewer is challenged to see Black America’s displacement from the continent of Africa, wrestle with their tragic dehumanization, confront the erasure of their history and identity, and ultimately hear Beyoncé’s spiritual call for these descendants of African captives to return home.
The Circle of Life
Beyoncé’s spiritual call to remember and return home opens the film with the symbolic image of a basket floating in the Nile river. This scene is reminiscent of the biblical story of Moses, a Hebrew infant whose mother hid him in a basket and placed him in the river to protect him from Pharaoh’s edict to kill all male Hebrew children. As we watch, scenes switch between African faces and this basket floating along the river. The voice of James Earl Jones speaks over these scenes describing the interconnectedness of all living creatures reminding us of that profound notion of “the great circle of life.” We are then led to Beyoncé standing on a shore in a tattered white dress and soon introduced to the title slide, “Black is King.”
The scene that follows is one of Beyonce holding a baby declaring, “bless the body born celestial, beautiful, in dark matter/Black is the color of my true love’s skin.” As she continues she claims, “you are welcome to come home to yourself/Let black be synonymous with glory.” Immediately, I was triggered recalling centuries of rhetoric denigrating blackness as inherently deviant, ugly, unholy, inferior, and undesired. Her admonition comes as a stark contrast to this history calling Black viewers to return home through a new found belief in the divinity, value, and glory of blackness. She continues this call with the song “BIGGER” declaring,
If you feel insignificant you better think again/better wake up because you’re part of something way bigger you’re part of something way bigger/not just a spec in the universe not just some words in a Bible verse you are the living word/you’re part of something way bigger/bigger than you, bigger than we, bigger than the picture they framed us to see/but now we can see it and it ain’t no secret no…./life is your birthright they hid that in the fine print/take the pen and rewrite it…/we’re fighting something way bigger/we’re part of something way bigger…
Powerful lines like these cannot be separated from the societal context in which they are sung. For Beyoncé to declare “if you feel insignificant you better think again…life is your birthright they hid that in the fine print” is for her to quite explicitly address the current socio-political notion and movement of Black Lives Matter. Introducing this narrative about a young Black king, Beyoncé declares that blackness does not make one insignificant nor does it validate the loss of life. Instead, it is the very reason one’s life matters, why living is one’s birthright.
Black Art as Politics
In this song Beyoncé walks in the tradition of the black artists before her using her art as a means of what Richard Iton in his book In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era would identify as an intentional “negotiation, representation, and reimagination of black interests through cultural symbols” for the purpose of “making…black politics.” He quotes actor, playwright, and director Ossie Davis who said “Art was at one time the only voice we had to declare our humanity. Art among us blacks has always been a statement about our condition, and therefore it has always been political.” Similarly he cites South African vocalist Miriam Makeba who declared, “I’ve always said, ‘I don’t sing politics; I sing the truth.’ I sang about the suffering we endured. It was not political, it was honest.”
In other words, Beyoncé’s song “BIGGER” is both an artistic and political declaration that blackness is an expression of humanity and divinity and thereby inextricably linked to something much bigger than even its experience with and fight against oppression. Quite literally, these lines overtly expose the fallacy and violence of white supremacy calling Black people to denounce the lie of their inferiority and embrace the truth of their value and ultimate divine purpose.
The scenes that follow are realistic depictions of Simba’s life as a prince, a curious and disobedient child, and ultimately a manipulated and grieving son exiled from community by his jealous uncle Scar. As we follow the story we watch him lured into a dangerous warehouse, gambling with older boys, riding a motorcycle, and then suddenly losing his father.
After these traumatic events, Simba runs in fear of punishment for his disobedience and the death of his father. In the desert he connects with Timon and Pumba symbolized by Akinmurele riding in a leopard car with his legs kicked up on the back of the seats chauffeured by a flamboyant driver. Timon declares, “look kid bad things happen and you can’t do anything about it right?” Simba innocently declares, “Right.” “Wrong!” Timon yells back. He then admonishes Simba that “when the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.” Simba acknowledges this is an idea he wasn’t taught, but he chooses to continue to ride out of the desert with his new guardians anyway.
As Simba approaches his new lesson he rides into a luscious and green scenery, home to a wealthy mansion manned by white servants. As Akinmurele sleeps he switches between himself and billionaire-mogul and rapper, Jay-Z. It is in this “MOOD 4 EVA” that Simba fully embraces and embodies “Hakuna Matata.” This is the infamous carefree lifestyle of luxury and leisure free of any moral and social responsibility.
Making a purely narrative-based interpretation, highlighting this as Simba’s attempt at “[turning] his back on the world,” one could suggest that a lack of connection to family, community, and ancestral identity leads to a life that prioritizes luxury and leisure to the neglect of moral and social responsibility. Highlighting the popular club life and wealth associated with Hip Hop, one could declare that Beyoncé is attaching this lifestyle to a lack of spiritual knowledge, community connection, and ancestral identity. It could further suggest, that any Black American that is concerned with embracing and embodying this lifestyle with no care for the moral and social ills of the world around him is then a prodigal son, sibling to a lost and exiled Simba.
But upon applying a close reading to the lyrics of “MOOD 4 EVA,” it appears the song is more of an appreciation for African royalty and Black excellence. The song seems to assert instead that despite exile and isolation Simba’s royalty could not be hindered. That even away from family, community, and identity he grew into the qualities and characteristics inherent to royalty anyway equipping him for his ultimate return home. We see this when Jay Z raps of the feats and fortunes of individuals like “Prince, Mike, Biggie, and Nas,” but ends declaring “the marathon will be televised for N.I.P./cause true kings don’t die we multiply.” With Beyonce following him declaring “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter/I am the Nala, sister of Naruba/Oshun, Queen Sheba,/I am the mother/Ankh on my gold chain, ice on my whole chain/I be like soul food, I am a whole mood,” she and Jay-Z connect themselves to African American cultural influencers along with African historical and mythological dynasties to reassert the power, importance, and inherent presence of African royalty in Black American people and their divine purpose.
This is particularly felt in the song “ALREADY.” In this song Beyoncé’s character Nala expresses to Simba that he is the rightful king and must return home to challenge his uncle Scar. Beyoncé declares, “long live the king you a king you know it/king already already you know it.” The significance and meaning of this song shifts slightly within this human adaptation. While in the Disney narrative such a line denotes Simba’s royalty and blood-right to the throne, by including real Black bodies Beyoncé’s declaration suggests that royalty is inherently in Black African people in spite of their separation from the continent of Africa. In other words, the royalty of blackness that she is declaring throughout this project is not one that is based on proximity to the continent but is instead based on a royalty that lives within all African people across the diaspora.
Beyoncé crowns this declaration with an immediate camera shift to the African American Pan-African flag. Black men cheer and wave the flag with pride and joy signifying their reception of their connection to Africa and the ancestral identity that comes with such knowledge of self.
This return home to a spiritual, intellectual, and social knowledge of self sees its culmination in the symbolic return of the basket floating in the Nile river. After a glorious assertion of the beauty and royalty of blackness, we find Beyoncé and a young baby in the middle of a sand storm. This moment is reminiscent of the part in Simba’s narrative when he must travel back to Pride Rock running through the sands of the desert that previously separated him from family, destiny, and his rightful place as king.
Singing “OTHERSIDE,” Beyoncé suggests that Black America’s return to Africa, freedom, identity, and destiny requires a spiritual and intellectual journey back from whence we’ve come. This makes the symbolism of the basket and the river critical. The film captures this basket floating along the river pushed by the current, bumping against sticks, rocks, and becoming submerged under the waves. I believe such imagery is a subtle and yet powerful symbol of the treacherous sojourn that was the Middle Passage. And like Simba raced through the sands of separation with passion and pride to return home, “OTHERSIDE” calls Black America to sojourn once again emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and symbolically through the pain of the Middle Passage acknowledging the separation, exile, and captivity of the ancestors in order to reach the otherside that is freedom, identity, community, and Africa as home.
A powerful and unapologetic depiction of the African American’s journey from exile to an African homecoming, Beyoncé’s “Black is King” makes an emotional call for Black America to spiritually return home and take up their rightful place as royalty. This return to divine purpose is critical as both Simba and Black Americans are seemingly called to rectify the social and political drought and famine that any leadership rooted in jealousy creates. The hard truth of our return is that it will require a painful, spiritual and emotional journey; a journey that requires that we once again cross the waves of the Middle Passage.