Last summer, when Beyoncé released “The Lion King: The Gift,” a tie-in album to the remade Disney blockbuster, she called it “sonic cinema.” Why then go to the trouble of turning the record into actual cinema in “Black Is King,” an 86-minute Afro-lollapalooza debuting on the Disney+ streaming service?
Well, because she’s Beyoncé, and the Queen will not be denied. But this “visual album” has at least two things going for it. First, it is eye candy of the highest order: shot on multiple contents, with multiple directors (under the oversight of Beyoncé and credited co-director Kwasi Fordjour), a zillion dancers, and a bazillion costume changes. Even when the meager story line falters — more on that in a bit — the music and visuals mesh into a dazzling whole.
Second, as a loose retrofitting of “The Lion King” into a celebration of Blackness, beauty, and the African diaspora, “Black Is King” overcomes a muddled first half to achieve genuine emotional punch in the homestretch. In part, this is due to the strength of the songs, collaborations by Beyoncé with a wealth of talent from the motherland, including singers Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, and Yemi Alade from Nigeria; Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly from South Africa; and Shatta Wale from Ghana. On record, these musicians added spice and cred to the larger enterprise. On film, they’re something more — ambassadors from a continental music scene too little heard in the States.
“Black Is King” first impresses as an outrageously colorful series of music-video tableaux, shot in expansive African landscapes and filled with dancers dressed in tribal-inspired haute-couture finery. Amid all these visual riches, Beyoncé doles out glib pensees on the soundtrack (“We were beauty before they knew what beauty was”) and garbs herself as a pop-culture mother goddess. She has the charisma to back it up and the songs are propulsive and strong — undeniable ear candy to match what’s onscreen — but the sub-”Lion King” narrative sputters to catch hold. Nigerian dancer Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze portrays an adult human Simba making his way through a surreal and hostile world, but “Black Is King” never forgets who the real star is. That gives the show an unfortunate but undeniable whiff of cultural exploitation at times.
Thankfully, the sour taste vanishes. “MOOD 4 EVA” is an enjoyable wallow in the high life, with husband Jay-Z dropping in and Beyoncé going full Carmen Miranda in a Busby Berkeley swimming pool. After that the vibe deepens and widens into a contemplation of womanly strength and Black heritage — where it comes from, where it needs to go. “Brown Skin Girl” envisions a heart-stopping image of Black debutantes, and when Beyoncé sings “Pretty like Lupita when the cameras roll in,” boom, there’s Lupita Nyong’o, and Naomi Campbell, and Kelly Rowland.
“Keys to the Kingdom” becomes a lavish wedding album for Dzedze’s Simba surrogate; “My Power” finds the star sharing space with a gallery of full-voiced women in outfits to die for: Busiswa on some sort of M.C. Escher stage set, Moonchild Sanelly in cobalt blue with buffalo horns, and the great American rapper Tierra Whack leading a cadre of dancing warrior queens. By then, your heart may be exploding and your retinas imploding. If “Black Is King” is conceptually bigger than “Lemonade,” the 2016 movie that brought Beyoncé to a new level of her career, the earlier work remains the more personal emotional knockout. But the new project ultimately convinces, and its exhortations of pride and self-worth for a new generation of Black bodies and minds (male and female) is undeniably uplifting. Kneel before the queen, it says — and then rise up into your future.
BLACK IS KING
Directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Co-directed by Kwasi Fordjour. Starring Beyoncé, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Jay-Z. Available on Disney+. 86 minutes. TV-14.