Black Is King
|Black Is King|
Official release poster
Black Is King is a 2020 American musical film and visual album directed, written and executive produced by American singer-songwriter Beyoncé. The film serves as a visual companion to the 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, a tie-in album curated by Beyoncé for the 2019 remake of The Lion King.
Black Is King was released globally to stream on Disney+ on July 31, 2020, and was aired the following day across Sub-Saharan Africa on M-Net and Canal+ Afrique and across the Middle East and North Africa on OSN. The film received acclaim from critics, with praise for Beyoncé's direction, the cinematography, score, costume design, subject matter and cultural themes.
A young African king is cast out from his family into an unforgiving world. He subsequently undergoes a journey "through betrayal, love and self-identity" to reclaim his throne, utilizing the guidance of his ancestors and childhood love. The story is told through the voices of present-day black artists.
On 19 July 2019, The Lion King (a photorealistic computer-animated remake of Disney's traditionally animated 1994 film of the same name) was theatrically released in the United States. The same day, an accompanying tie-in album titled The Lion King: The Gift was released by Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records. The Gift was curated and produced by Beyoncé, who described the album as "a love letter to Africa" and recounted her determination to find "the best talent from Africa, and not just use some of the sounds and [do] my interpretation of it".
Beyoncé explained that she believes The Gift "is the first soundtrack where it becomes visual in your mind". Beyoncé added, "I wanted to put everyone on their own journey to link the storyline. Each song was written to reflect the film's storytelling that gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery, while listening to a new contemporary interpretation."
On June 19, 2020, Beyoncé released the single "Black Parade", in celebration of the Juneteenth holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Raisa Bruner of Time called the song "a tour-de-force of references: to black history, to African traditions, to her own family and past" and described Beyoncé as "the queen of a generation providing guidance and assembling her listeners with black solidarity".
Beyoncé called the film "my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year".
According to those who have worked on the film, Black Is King contains multiple chapters representing different localities, such as Nigeria and Ghana, with cast and crew of that nationality recruited to contribute and filming taking place in those countries.
In July 2019, after the release of the music video for "Spirit", Beyoncé wanted to release more visuals for The Lion King: The Gift. At first, she intended to produce small clips for each song, with them shooting in her backyard. She then decided to create full-length videos for each song, and her idea later snowballed into a full film with a very large production.
When voicing the character of Nala in The Lion King (2019), Beyoncé delved into the history of the film and its story. She learnt about the story of Solomon Linda, the South African composer of the song "Mbube" who received no credit or royalties from the song being used as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the original The Lion King. This angered Beyoncé and she left the studio pledging to create a film that will tell the real story with the help of actual Africans instead of using lions and animation, and show the regalness and beauty of Africans before colonialism and slavery erased their past. "Mbube", credited to Linda, is the only original The Lion King song included in Black Is King. Beyoncé explained that the film was created to "celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry" and "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."
Co-director Kwasi Fordjour described the excitement of the early development, saying "Your adrenaline starts to rush and it becomes like, 'OK, what are we going to do, how are we going to do it, where do we start?' When you get into the space where you're so interested and enthralled with creating worlds and spaces, it becomes fun, and she makes it fun." To research for the film, Beyoncé described how she "spent a lot of time exploring and absorbing the lessons of past generations and the rich history of different African customs". The trailer shows Beyoncé reading from the 1971 book Black Gods and Kings, written by American art-historian Robert Farris Thompson to record the art history of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria.
On June 10, 2020, it was reported that Beyoncé was securing a $100 million deal to work on three films for Disney, with a source telling The Sun "Beyoncé has become a major player for Disney and is the perfect fit for their brand".
The cast and crew for Black Is King were recruited to "represent diversity and connectivity", with Beyoncé wanting to feature "raw, new talent". Those recruited to direct segments of the film include Ghanaian-Dutch filmmaker and visual artist Emmanuel Adjei, who contributed to the narrative structure of the entire film, Ghanaian filmmaker and visual artist Blitz the Ambassador, Nigerian-British artist and director Jenn Nkiru, and South African visual artist Trevor Stuurman. Academy Award winner Hannah Beachler was recruited as one of the production designers.
The artists featured in The Gift (such as Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Burna Boy, Salatiel and Wizkid) were recruited for the film, as well as special guests such as Blue Ivy, Jay-Z and Kelly Rowland. The cast also features South African actors Nandi Madida and Warren Masemola, and Nigerian actor Papi Ojo, for whom Black Is King is his debut film performance.
Hundreds of costumes were designed for Black Is King, including approximately 65 for Beyoncé herself. Stylist Zerina Akers curated outfits from both global brands and young black designers for the film, saying "To be able to give [an emerging talent] the same visibility as a large corporation is invaluable... It’s not just about creating a look, it’s about how many families can benefit from that look. To see the waves this has created has been a dream."
Akers spoke about how she "wanted to reference different cultures, traditions and tribes, but to have the freedom to create fantasy, for people to be able to escape into a new world". This included dancers wearing kanaga masks in the "Find Your Way Back" video, with the sparkly looks being inspired by constellations; this is a reference to the Dogon people's astrological belief system and complex astronomical expertise. The fashion in the "My Power" video was designed according to the colors of the Seven African Powers, with each singer representing a different orisha. One look in the "Already" video was a 5:31 Jérôme blue Nigerian lace trench dress with an accompanying Nigerian gele, inspired by the fashion of matriarchal women at Nigerian weddings. A Burberry cowprint top and skirt from the "Already" video were inspired by the Xhosa and Zulu people of South Africa, who use the hide of Nguni cattle in their shields.
Filming primarily took place in the latter half of 2019, in locations such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa (including the Shakaland Zulu Village, a Ndebele church and the Ponte City Apartments in Johannesburg), New York, Los Angeles (including The Beverly House), the Grand Canyon, London and Belgium.
Post-production took place from December 2019 at Flawless Post. MeLo-X, Derek Dixie and James William Blades contributed to the score and sound design; MeLo-X described working on the film on Twitter, writing "Truly an amazing and eye opening journey. @Beyonce always pushes for greatness. This is nothing less".
Black Is King is based on the music of The Lion King: The Gift, with each song on the album receiving corresponding visuals in the film. An extended version of "Black Parade" was used for the film's credits.
The film's score was composed by James William Blades, MeLo-X and Derek Dixie, while Beyoncé and Derek Dixie acted as music directors. The score contains traditional African music from Smithsonian Folkways recordings.
On the film's release date, a deluxe edition of The Gift was released, including both the original and extended versions of "Black Parade" and a remix of "Find Your Way Back" by MeLo-X.
Black Is King was released globally on July 31, 2020 on Disney+. As Disney+ is not available in Africa, a distribution deal was made with Central and West African television channel Canal+ Afrique and South African media conglomerate MultiChoice Group's channel M-Net to screen Black Is King across Sub-Saharan Africa on August 1, 2020. For the film's premiere, the MultiChoice Group will open M-Net for all DStv customers for about 2 hours on the rest of the packages except for the Premium package. As part of the deal, Black Is King was aired in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Namibia, Cameroon, Liberia, Burundi, Senegal, Togo, Somalia, Benin, Congo, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Gabon and Cape Verde. Additionally, Emirati television network OSN screened Black Is King throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.
On the night of June 27, 2020, a teaser trailer for Black Is King was posted on Beyoncé's website, the first official announcement of the film to the public. The teaser was then premiered on television a day later on June 28, to conclude the BET Awards after Beyoncé's acceptance speech for the BET Humanitarian Award. It was then subsequently released across various platforms by Beyoncé's entertainment and management company Parkwood Entertainment in association with Disney. Bob Iger, Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company, said he was "honored to be working with Beyoncé [on] this" upon sharing the teaser on Twitter. The surprise release of the teaser caused "Twitter [to go] bonkers", according to USA Today, and it subsequently received praise from fans and critics alike for its imagery and symbolism.
An official trailer for Black Is King was released on July 19, 2020 by Beyoncé. Some of the members of the cast and crew were subsequently announced. The trailer was similarly praised by critics, with Jasmine Ting for Paper declaring the film "[a] colorful cinematic masterpiece" with "out-of-this-world visuals" that mix "traditional cultural elements from the African continent" with "modern-day African-American culture".
Ben Sisario of The New York Times writes that the minimal marketing for Black Is King "reflects one of Beyoncé's great talents — stoking public conversation with her art, while explaining very little about it". Ohio State University associate professor Treva Lindsey adds that Beyoncé "is allowing her art to speak for itself" and "opening up space for robust conversations".
Black Is King received positive reviews from critics and fans alike with praise for its visuals, direction, music, themes and cultural relevance. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 100% based on 45 reviews, with an average rating of 8.14/10. As of August 2020, it is the highest-rated Disney+ original on Rotten Tomatoes The website's critical consensus states: "Beyoncé is King." At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Writing for Decider, Anna Menta said that Black Is King is "an undeniably breathtaking, personal, and political work of art." Describing it as "a visual masterpiece" that is "almost overwhelming", Menta praised the "neverending progression of jaw-dropping landscapes" and the "instantly iconic" costumes, adding that "every frame, outfit, and dance move has meaning." In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Lorraine Ali said the film is a "pageant of sight and sound honoring the Black diaspora, weaving a collection of vibrant, profound and defiantly creative scenarios". Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen of The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Beyoncé "stuns again with the spellbinding Black Is King", which "takes the viewer on a dazzling, hyper-real ride through natural landscapes and space-age futures, while incorporating elements of black history and tradition." Nguyen added that the film transposes The Lion King "to a modern political context, turning the tale of Simba's journey towards selfhood into a bold statement about the power of black identity."
Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com described Black Is King as an "inspirational piece of art" and "a jaw-dropping visual achievement" with "stunning visuals that permeate every frame [which] arrive courtesy of a crew of spectacular cinematographers, each of whom brings a different yet cohesive look to the set pieces". Marianna Cerini, writing for CNN, also praised the visuals and themes of the film, calling it "a universe of phenomenal, larger-than-life looks and sets that are as powerful and artful as the cultural messages conveyed through the music." David Smyth of the Evening Standard agreed, describing the film as a "sumptuous, breathtaking celebration of ancestry." Writing for NME, Jenessa Williams praised the "stirring iconography" and "impeccable" visuals, adding that "each shot is straight out of a modernist gallery, juicy pinks and oranges beaming against impossible sunsets and lush green landscapes." Chanté Joseph of The Guardian declared Black Is King "a feast for the eyes, celebrating the beauty and richness of African cultures with emotion and power."
Okla Jones of Consequence of Sound praised Beyoncé's direction, describing how "Beyoncé’s attention to detail is prevalent throughout the film’s nearly 90-minute duration, with each scene matching the emotional tone of the song that accompanies it". Janelle Okwodu of Vogue agreed, opining that "Black Is King shows her at her most commanding", with Beyoncé's vision tying the work of her collaborators. Steve Rose of The Guardian stated that "Beyoncé is emerging as a major figure in cinema", adding that "it’s safe to say that Beyoncé is... one of the most significant film-makers" on the planet. Janell Hobson, writing for Ms., described how "Bey, as auteur, orchestrates the music, the videos, the fashions, the dances, and the multiple artists on her audiovisual project in a grand unifying vision". Aidin Vaziri of the San Francisco Chronicle commented that the film "takes cues from the theatrical pacing of Beyoncé’s tour performances". Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic of The New York Times, wrote that the "overwhelming" scenes and outfits are "dazzling, but also calculated", with "all of them exist[ing] to serve the vision of one woman; to elevate the imagery of Beyoncé". Friedman continued, explaining how this concentrates "all the power in her own hands, marking the garments into tools to reinforce her message", concluding that "this project and all its trappings position its auteur, as the voice-over says in the film, as the "divine archetype"." Allegra Frank of Vox described how "Beyoncé shows us through the 85-minute powerhouse of an art film" that "Africa is no singular entity... Africa is the motherland of all shades of Blackness. And through these gorgeous frames, each one an art piece of its own, she says: "Everything the light touches is our kingdom.""
In a review for The Ringer, Taylor Crumpton explained that Beyoncé "lifted the veil of white supremacist thought that has dehumanized the African Diaspora". Crumpton posited that to combat white supremacy, "a global Black identity is needed,... not only through political and community organizing, but in the spiritual sense"; using this belief, the film is Beyoncé's declamation to the African diaspora to "disinvest from established power dynamics" by undertaking "the internal journey to uncover an identity and heritage lost to them from centuries of enslavement". Jeremy Helligar of Variety agreed, writing that Black Is King "reminds us that Black lives didn’t begin in chains" and inspires young black people "to learn about the history of their race and the ways in which it has shaped the world". Writing for Glamour, Candace McDuffie called the film "an unforgettable visual experience", describing the film as holding "a mirror to the dynamic nature of Blackness—one for all the world to see. The result is truly remarkable." McDuffie added that the film "is exactly what we need right now...[as] its meaning is much deeper than a simple retelling of a Disney movie." In a review for Empire, Amon Warmann described the film as "a bold and unique offering that's brimming with Black pride" and "a powerful reminder of what Black people can aspire to be." In a review for NPR, Eric Deggans said that "there's a lot of profundity" in the dialogue of the film, adding that it is clear Beyoncé put a lot of thought into the project and how it can make a significant impact.
Sukriti Wahi of Elle Australia praised how the film includes non-black people of color who have experienced colorism, such as South Asian model Sheerah Ravindren, and how Beyoncé "put independent black designers from around the world front and centre". Cydney Henderson of USA Today wrote that the star of the film "is the raw, untapped talent from performers around the world showcasing their rich tradition and culture, history and lineage", with the film showcasing "the often overlooked Afrobeats genre", as well as "less mainstream superstars like Wizkid and Shatta Wale while employing popular African dances like the gbese, gwara and zanku."
Dominic Patten of Deadline wrote that with Black Is King, "you have a cultural dominance almost unknown nowadays", with the film being "the conformation of its creator and star as the cultural Queen of our time." Writing for Vogue, Hayley Maitland opined that Beyoncé is "shifting the zeitgeist" with Black Is King, adding that "the project feels especially timely in light of recent devastating events and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter." Matt Donnelly of Variety wrote that "Beyoncé is pushing the boundaries of what many have come to expect from the Disney machine" with Black Is King being "the boldest brand statement ever from Disney" and "the most direct confrontation of a timely societal discussion around racism that Disney Plus has seen."
At The Walt Disney Company Q3 2020 earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek announced that Disney+ reached its five-year subscriber goal in eight months, crediting films such as Black Is King for an increase of approximately 3 million subscribers. Chapek described how Black Is King is "being widely celebrated for its diverse cast, stunning artistry and inspiring interpretation of the Black experience", adding that it clearly shows "the power of the Disney+ platform for premiering world-class content".
The Marine Serre moon print bodysuit that is featured in Black Is King became "the most popular design of 2020", with the brand seeing a 426% increase in searches in the 48 hours after the film’s release. Steff Yotka of Vogue wrote that "Black Is King was the digital fashion event of the summer, upstaging official fashion weeks by aligning garments with history, celebrity, purpose, and unparalleled beauty."
A TikTok and social media trend titled "#MyPowerChallenge" was created after the film's release, whereby participants recreate the dance from the "My Power" video in Black Is King. One video by 6-year-old Grey Skye Evans went viral on Instagram.
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