Claims that reference Disney’s The Lion King as visually and thematically violent, will prompt many to see King Mufasa hanging off a cliff before falling to his death as his young son Simba watches in a youthful confusion. However, to assign the film’s violence to one fictional scene would be a grave oversight. The Lion King is anti-black, and therefore potentially fatal for black viewers and detrimental to repairing the perception of black people. Repairing the black collective, or dare I say reparations, is, of course, not an American or Disney objective.
The film’s violence stems from its racist and colorist discourse. Scar, the film’s villain, and the Hyenas, who maintain consistent and literal placement in the film’s shadows, prove particularly problematic. Their physical blackness, Scar’s trademark dark hair, the hyena’s dark skin, full features, and dialect often paired with those relegated to the societal margins and the inner city, reflect the very qualities and presumed inferiority that corresponds to the black collective.
Similarly, Pride Rock, the story’s core, proves identical to nearly any suburban environment. Though white people do not inhabit all suburbs, all suburban environments maintain a proximity to whiteness and are often inundated with white versions of success and achievement. Pride Rock’s literal and figurative placement away from the literal shadows that Scar and the hyenas occupy, encompass the very binaries that separate the suburbs from the “slums,” the affluent from the impoverished, and the black from the white. The film’s conflict, therefore, lies in its subtleties. Viewers who consume the film’s content as children, consume its racialized discourse and subconsciously compartmentalize it’s content as an ideology. Thus, by the time black Lion King viewers who first visually consumed the film in childhood approach adolescence, they will be ready to take their place in the shadows of a society that hates them.
While the story remains the same, Lion King, like many contemporary adaptations of Disney films, have overtly embraced physical diversity to display its contempt for the black collective in color. Specifically, the 2019 adaptation of the Lion King employs pop-superstar Beyonce to play the film’s heroine and to sing the film’s soundtrack into the minds of its targets. Beyonce’s placement on Pride Rock as Nahla seems a testament to her popularity and vocal ability, yet Beyonce’s film placement mirrors her function and positionality with regard to the black community. Specifically, the white media casts Beyonce as a heroine for the black race who must fight the hyenas, or avert black stereotypes, to assume a position “in the light.” She is suburbia and all other symbols of whiteness, masked behind physical blackness, or politicized diversity. Beyonce as Nahla, a lioness who emerges from the shadows into the “light” associated with Pride Rock, symbolized Beyonce’s emergence from a niggerized blackness into a larger than life figure that speaks to the black collective using her oppressor’s language. This language is not only in songs, a point I will return to momentarily, but in the long blonde hair and light brown skin, that remain the apex of a black female beauty written in whiteness.
Beyonce’s strategic casting is perhaps most evident in her song “Brown Skin Girl,” a reggae-inspired song that features daughter Blue Ivy Carter. The song quickly became an anthem for black women who, like Destiny Child member Kelly Rowland, are too often rendered invisible when juxtaposed to their fairer-skinned counterparts. The song proves a testament to the beauty of those born with the kiss of the sun. Admittedly, the song has a catchy rhythm, and Blue Ivy’s closing solo, which embodies the goal of generations to come, would bring even a racially neutral black person to tears. However, the very brown celebrated in this popular tune, proves a catalyst for the film’s evil villain whose darkness must be overcome to restore light back to the kingdom. The song’s irony is multiplicious, as Beyonce would not be “Beyonce” without the “brown skinned” woman of whom she sings. Specifically, the brown skinned girl, or who Alice Walker calls the “black black woman” who sits at the start of Beyonce’s genetic lineage, literally birthed the superstar, as did the black black woman’s generational disenfranchisement. Beyonce’s serenade also delineate another continuous conflict cast onto the browner-skinned black woman.
Fairer-skinned black women are often cast to tell their more sun-kissed counterpart’s narrative, an arragement that has become normalized in anti-black culture. As seen with the recent Nina Simone movie that starred Zoe Saldana, and series like Greanleaf, Grownish, or the new Netflix series Family Reunion, the sun-kissed black woman with full, African features is too often excluded from her own story. These examples, along with Beyonce’s serenade to her sun-kissed sisters, illustrate that the black woman cannot play herself in her own story, nor sing her own glory.
Thus, the cognitive dissonance Beyonce imbues in her Lion King role remains lost to many who seek only superficial representation. This superficial representation grants a vile inclusion to the progression of oppressed peoples. Specifically, Disney’s diversity is not about including black people in that self-esteem surge that white viewers experience when consuming media, but including black people in their own detrimental portrayal to ensure the fate of the darker-hued in the Lion King becomes real life.
So while Simba, played by Donald Glover, resumes his throne as “king” by the film’s end, the Lion King is not a black man, nor does the film mark a black victory. The white man remains king with the sometimes-victim white woman beside him on a throne build by black bones.
The Lion King, much like beauty standards and the perception of the black collective, remains unchanged. Though black faces occupy positions behind computer-generated lions and even assume seemingly central placement in beauty campaigns, this does not negotiate the anti-black power structure. Casting black bodies in an anti-black powerplay, the white world has festered the wound of anti-blackness. This casting encompasses what the mainstream world calls diversity, but this”diversity” translates to variety in appearance only and proves disastrous to the black collective.
In conclusion, the magic of Disney, as seen in The Lion King and the upcoming Little Mermaid film, illustrates the magic of white supremacy in a constituency that believes in the possibility of a good oppressor more than they believe in their collective good. Therefore, The Lion King delineates whiteness as the reigning monarchy presiding over a constituency bound to an inevitable obliteration masked by faulty inclusion.
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Thank you for seeing the irony in the song “Brown Skin Girl.” I am not knocking Beyonce’s attempt as an ally, but to ignore the elephant in the room – the constant blonde hair, the nose contouring makeup – the past sentiments about loving afros and “Jackson 5 nostrils” is questionable. I wonder if her darker skin ancestors were treated equally in the Creole community. Solange hinted colorism occurred in their family, but I never heard it discussed by Beyonce. Also in the song it says, “When in doubt, remember what mama told you.” I guess we can’t rely on papa, since her actual father made it known how he coveted light skin – that he initially mistook her mom, Tina, for being White. The father should be present, as the very first man a girl encounters, to let her know that she is beautiful (in terms of hetero relationships). I feel that line went over people’s heads.