The Invitation ‘Black is King’ Gives Us
One of the many questions on my mind when I first sat down to watch Black is King was, “Who is the audience?” Buried in that, of course, was the more individualized question, “Is this for me?” I’ve been a Beyoncé fan since the Destiny’s Child years and have never had to question the relevance of her projects to myself as a fan in the same way before. Even the few songs I choose to skip when I replay old albums are passed over because I recognize something in them that is familiar but that I am distancing myself from. So it felt very strange to watch the trailer for Black is King and be uncertain. I am a Black American from a West African family, born in Liberia but raised in the U.S. Beyoncé’s most recent projects before Black is King — Homecoming and Lemonade — though distinctly African-American, felt like they were for me because I exist in the U.S. as a Black woman, live and teach in African-American communities, am married into an African-American family, and am raising two African-American daughters. The marching band on stage during Homecoming, the Black Panther imagery in “Formation,” and the whistle and twang of “Daddy’s Lessons” all felt like a part of an experience I had lived and a tradition I had contributed to. I was unsure going into Black is King whether Beyoncé’s experience and representation of Africa would feel aligned with my own lived experience and tradition in the same way.
After several watches of the film, I can confidently say I believe it takes on the extremely difficult task of creating something for Black folks across the diaspora and does a pretty respectable job. That is not to say that all Black people are fully represented in the film. Others have already written and I’m sure will continue to write about gaps like the lack of representation of fat bodies and queer bodies in the film as well as the narrow portrayal of masculinity on screen despite a few lines of poetry about expanding outside your box. In its commitment to a specific plotline, retelling the familiar story of The Lion King, the film does not attempt to fully represent Blackness across the diaspora but instead invites each of us to map our own Blackness onto it. The invitation, as I see it, is not necessarily to seek kingship in oneself or one’s ancestry, which is not a desirable objective for many of us. The invitation is to map out our journeys alongside the journeys onscreen and the journeys of those around us to see where the commonalities lie.
In my first watch, I saw the journey Beyoncé had mapped out for herself in her infusion of African-American tradition and her own lived experiences throughout the film. The debutante ball in “Brown Skin Girl” where she is surrounded by her friends and the portrait in “Mood 4 Eva” that depicts the children from her miscarriages as angels are two examples of this. It was clear throughout Black is King that the idea of kingship as a means to caring for extended community was compelling to Beyoncé and relevant to her journey.
In my second watch, I mapped out my partner’s journey as an African-American man whose birth had major complications. In “Already,” I saw his determination to do what he was told he couldn’t. In “Ja Ara E,” I saw the times he had allowed himself to stray from a path that was healthy physically and spiritually. In “Keys to the Kingdom,” I saw the work he is still doing to define for himself what masculinity can be outside of rigidity, strength, and absence of emotion. Throughout the film, there was the reminder of the journey he is still on to learn his ancestry and the painful conversation where he admitted that being around my family, who is more connected to their own, can be difficult for him. His journey is not defined by a fighting for kingship — he identifies strongly as a public servant — but it can be mapped well onto the film.
In my third watch, I wept. This was the viewing that allowed me to map my own complicated journey with my Blackness onto the film. I am an American living in the South without the deep roots my partner has in the culture and history here because my journey in the U.S. began as an immigrant refugee in the Northeast. I am a Liberian whose family lineage includes some of the freed American slaves that returned to Africa to found the country. I am a child of war who has always existed in the in-between and often I feel twice removed from my ancestry — first by the Middle Passage and then by a civil war. So when I watched “Find Your Way Back” the third time, it resonated in a new way. When I watched “Scar,” I thought of child soldiers, destroyed villages, and the collective trauma of the civil wars for the Liberian community. And when I watched “Brown Skin Girl,” I thought as I always do about how I never want my daughters to struggle in the same way I did with loving their beautiful bodies and hair — an experience that is obviously not unique to me.
One opportunity the film misses to touch on a fairly universal Black experience is actually a result of their veering too far away from the original plotline and cutting out Timon and Pumba’s roles in the narrative. There is a short clip of Timon’s voice that plays while the child’s ancestor drives him to safety, and I found that idea of Timon and Pumba as ancestors compelling, but then it was not explored further. To me, Timon and Pumba represent a chosen family, which I think is critical to many Black lived experiences. The grandmother that takes in as many as she can care for, the fraternities and sororities where people build kinship, and the queerplatonic friendships and spaces for those who are not accepted by their birth families are just a few examples of the chosen families that define our journeys. I also see a missed opportunity in the parallel of Simba’s time in the jungle with Timon and Pumba with the indulgence of “Mood 4 Eva.” His time with them may have been self-serving because it alleviated him of responsibility to others, but it was also defined by living in moderation (a whole vegan diet) and separating his inherent value from his title. I think exploring this in the film might have served as an invitation to map out the collective journey many of us are on to fight respectability politics and redefine our value outside of our labor and status.
Still, I think Black is King pays respect to our collective journeys past and the many journeys we have up ahead as a diaspora. As I watched Beyoncé set the baby in the river during “Otherside,” I thought of how every Black person I know has experienced either being sent on a journey like this themselves or sending someone they love off on their own. Sometimes we are forced into the journey, through enslavement, imprisonment, natural disasters, and the like. Other times it is willing — we want our child to have a better education, a unique experience, or just get to know the other side of their family. As I watched the sandstorm roll in on the landscape during “Otherside,” I thought of the journeys ahead for Black communities across the diaspora — as climate change continues to destroy our homes and communities, as Black people everywhere continue to fight against governments for basic rights, as the global pandemic continues to expose the need for real structural change. The journeys ahead are both exhausting to think about and incredibly familiar because even those of us that haven’t had the privilege of self-discovery or physically journeying far have heard the stories of those who did. Folktales, negro spirituals, poetry, and art have all allowed us to pass the stories on.
What I hope we will do, and what I believe the movie invites us to, is take advantage of how connected we are in the modern world and journey together. As a collective, as a global village, I think we are invited to see each other and a shared ancestry and tackle the terrifying journeys ahead with the countless shared stories of journeys past to guide us. I see the work as a starting point. I hope it inspires those who may not have felt fully represented to take up more space, complicate the narrative, and call on the village to recognize our journeys and stories. I also hope that even those who are hesitant to engage with it at first allow the film the opportunity to give meaning and or healing to a part of their journey. “A journey is a gift,” Beyoncé recites in the beginning of the film. In her own personal journey she saw the gift a collective of artists and experiences from across the diaspora could produce if they came together and shared that with us. Perhaps the gift isn’t perfect, but I find it immensely valuable nonetheless.