Last month Beyonce released her third film Black is King, a modern humanized update of the Disney Classic The Lion King. Praised by critics for being visually stunning, opulent and powerful; It has not escaped the critiques from Africans and African Americans alike. Critics claimed it to be capitalistic, exploitative and presenting outdated imagery of Africa. Is Black is King a cultural feat in promoting black beauty, art and the message of empowerment? Or is it an opulent commodification of African culture?
words by Maryam Perez
“You are welcome to come home to yourself” she instructs the viewer while standing on a beach seemingly floating in a mass of white fabric. Black is King, a young man’s journey of self discovery starts with an invitation to return to the place where life began. She goes on to acknowledge the viewer’s pain of feeling insignificant in this world and how hard it is to change. The chorus repeats “You are bigger than what they allowed us to see”. This film doesn’t do subtle, every scene grabs your attention, every song is a call to action. I’m instantly reminded of a James Baldwin quote in a letter to his nephew “ It was intended that you should perish…. by never being allowed to go beyond the white man’s definitions” .
The film continues as a love story to Blackness, an exploration of African culture — traditional and modern- and a subversion of the Black person’s role in a White man’s world. In “mood 4 eva” we get the image of Black people in traditionally white roles, with the only white people in the film shown as voiceless servants. We are taken on a journey through an array of environments, the shanty town, the lit up city streets and the vast landscapes of desert, plains and jungle. We see equal attention given to the black men and women with images of young human Simba smiling in a bed of rose petals and young Nala gallantly through the halls of a castle.
Packed to the brim with references to African art of the past, present and imaging of the future. The film is a hero’s journey wrapped in African motifs. It’s an update to the lion king, a movie made without Black or African collaborators. A criticism of Disney was that their Black films never featured humans but only animals. Beyonce’s Black is King explodes with her love for the continent and the depth of Black culture.
Amidst quarantine and protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder, Black is king’s depiction of Black joy, unified family and love is groundbreaking in its contrast to the relentless hatred, devaluation and oppression of Black bodies in American culture. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes in a letter to his nephew “ You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence ; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
There is a significance in the biggest pop star in the world on one of the biggest streaming platforms in the world showcasing Black excellence in today’s climate in a kids movie. Beyonce wrote about the film on her instagram “ (sic) celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our real history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.” This is an artistic salve to the media’s oppressive wound.
A Black American child’s psyche is taught that whiteness is a synonym for safer, better, more beautiful and educated. We are taught that our history began with slavery and that we are nothing more than that. We grow up traumatized watching the murder of Philando Castile, hearing the verdict of Trayvon Martin’s trial, navigating the painful confusion of what really happened to Sandra Bland, the known amongst many. We grapple with the question “Is a black man’s life only worth $20” while we watch the news segments on George Floyd’s murder. To be black in America is an exhausting cycle of pain, anger and hopelessness. It follows us everywhere we go from job, to healthcare to the media we consume. In recent times the world is finally admitting to all the ways we are held back, for many of us it’s a little too late.
The light of recent exposes of systemic racism, has pushed us to be hyper critical of every public figure and any art piece that comes out. The hyper vigilance is a logical response to years of oppression but sometimes it feels like our anger is chaotic and making us even more divided. Critics claimed it was exploiting African imagery without proper consideration of the current plight of Native Africans, a trojan horse of white imperialism pushed by Black Americans. Others worried about the romanticization of post colonial Africa and it’s troubling ideas that only fantastical regal Black lives — an idea perpetuated by the usage of ‘Queen’ and ‘King’ are worthwhile. Another claimed it as “an unrestrained overcompensation” to combat the insecurity that systemic racism produces. It’s complex, I think people are underestimating the need for positive black imagery in contrast to the negative. These criticisms do bring in a lot of questioning about the role of Black Americans in the subjugation of Africa. But it also blames Black Americans for African problems that we have had little if no hand in. The idea that Black Americans are exploiting Africans overestimates the power we have and ignores that fact that most of the problems in current Africa are caused by European post colonial debts, corrupt and incompetent African leaders and extensive debts that are owed to the Chinese government. The criticism is that Black Americans are exploiting Africans for their culture when in actuality Africa is already being exploited by foreign interests for resources, labor and land that Black Americans have no part of. I can understand the critique of past Black American portrayals of Africans for example the movie Coming to America, but in Black is King Beyonce collaborates with African creators to create artwork that shows a very respectful, exciting and realistic portrait of places across the continent.
The film shows shanty towns and villages ( as well as cityscapes and natural landscapes) but those places are real and why should we be ashamed of them? There is valid criticism raised by this film being distributed and funded by Disney, a large corporation with racist and exploitative history. Those concerns are valid but we live in a capitalistic world and the collaboration allows a vast amount of people to see the artwork but also for the artist to get fairly compensated (I’m assuming). And let’s be honest, most of us work for white people or white owned companies with shady histories. In the division of us, we are being punished for wanting to have a connection to our deeper roots and ancestral homeland. Why are we being rejected again in our attempt at connection?
We are still hungry for black images and black stories and I think the film inspires people to create more work but also opens the door for more Black and African stories to be produced. The only criticism that I heard and agreed with was that in all the film’s diversity it excludes images of non heteronormative love and family.
The film and the criticism surrounding it caused me to reflect on my own journey of accepting, exploring and embracing my Black culture. I was used to struggling with my relationship to my Black roots, my connection distorted by familial estrangements. I was raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, New York. Her people were from Florida, Cuba and Barbados, that all migrated up north to live in Brooklyn. My father was born and raised in Nigeria migrating to America as a young man. I grew up only knowing his name and the country he was from. I didn’t meet him until I was 24 years old.
I look entirely like my father. I have his wide nose, almond eyes and high cheekbones set in a round face. People know I’m of Nigerian ancestry when they look at me. As a kid I never spoke about my Nigerian heritage because my father wasn’t around. I felt ashamed for having more questions than answers. I tried to connect to my heritage by visiting countries, reading books, watching movies, going to exhibitions, taking African dance classes but I always felt like a voyeur.
I have been to Africa (Ghana) twice in my life; a month with my mom as a nine year old and three months as a 22 year old. Both were great, exciting, informative experiences. I felt grounded being surrounded by so many dark skin black people. Instead of my usual experience of being the only one, I was one of many. I had many adventures and found it easy to be social. I swam in the warm ocean waters, hikes to waterfalls and had journeys on fishing boats. I partied in jungles under trees wrapped in firelights and rode on the back of motorcycles through the crowded city streets. After coming home from my daily internship, I sat on the balcony of my apartment watching bats fill the sunset sky. I had bittersweet feelings in these moments of beauty (especially when I was surrounded by non Black foreigners) thinking of how many Black Americans that would never think to come to Africa and see what led beyond the tragic images shown on television.
The Africans I met were diverse in their backgrounds. I had native born African friends that grew up well off in gated communities and went to private school who grew up idolizing rappers. I met people who didn’t know how to read (elementary school cost money there) and lived in huts or shanties.
Even with my dark skin, wide Nigerian nose and natural hair, I couldn’t hide my foreignness. I walked through markets past whispers of “African American” and “Abruni” (the Ghanian word for foreigner or white person). I learned to stop being offended by people questioning my dreads, lack of christian faith (I’m a Buddhist), my septum piercing and tattoos. A boy that lived in my neighborhood named Kofi asked me “How are you black if you aren’t from Africa?” after I told him I was born in America. He continued to question if I was the same as my blond, blue eyed German roommate. I wasn’t offended because he was like 8 years old but it caused me to think about when African kids learn about slavery. Especially in a country where a slave castle still stands.
I wonder about the divide between us. I’ve heard stereotypes repeated from both sides. I’ve heard Black Americans say all Africans live in huts. I’ve been questioned by Africans if it was true that African Americans were lazy. It’s just ignorance fueled by the distance between us and racist media. But ignorance can be dangerous and does nothing to unite Black people.
I had to be honest with myself in my differences from native Africans because of my western upbringing. Even with the hardships I faced I still had more privileges than a lot of Africans. But I also have African friends that had more privileges than me, growing up with two parents, having maids and attending private schools. I remember that the Black experience is not a monolithic one.
My reckoning in my acceptance of my heritage and identity is accepting the reality and working from there I decided to love and claim it all and its complexity. It is the acknowledgement of some of my ancestors being survivors of the slave trade and others being the ones that got to stay.
It is a fantasy that black people have that if we return to Africa we will be accepted and embraced like long lost brothers and sisters. The reality is we have lived different lives than a lot of Africans, we have experienced different privileges and hardships. Some people will be open and friendly but millions of others are trying to navigate through corrupt governments, inadequate infrastructure and the devastating effects of climate change; too busy to form a welcoming committee. It is human nature to be tribal and isn’t exclusive to the Black race (i.e. Irish vs. English, Chinese vs. Japanese, Saudis vs. Palestinians). It would be amazing if we could all unite as one and I do believe art inspires that process of reconciliation.
African Americans creating African inspired artwork doesn’t take away from Africans being allowed to create but adds to the library of Black cultural lexicon. Africans should acknowledge the impact that African American culture (especially hip-hop and rap) has also influenced and inspired them. The film made me realize I’m still hungry for images of Black people and African culture that exist beyond the white gaze even as someone that tries to stay up to date on the culture. There’s many famous people that are of African descent but are western that reference both their cultures to create nuanced work: Artist Kehinde Wiley, British Vogue Editor in Chief Edward Enniful, Comedian Retta, Rapper Tyler the Creator, Actress Issa Rae, and Writer/Actress Micaela Cole.
Beyonce’s work shows what happens when we collaborate when black people are able to reference and use all our cultures and experiences to draw from. When we all come together what is created is magical. I believe that as long as we acknowledge each other’s struggles, connect over our similarities rather than our differences we can heal, move forward and create something beautiful.