Beyonce’s Black is King delivers an aesthetically pleasing cultural collage. From waterfalls to regal braiding, the film captures the pure beauty of black people who occupy both central and peripheral spaces in the film. The music also engenders a Pan-Africanist sound that melds the diaspora together in a melody as diverse a the colors of the black diasporic palette.
While a plethora of gorgeous images inundates the film, the film’s apex comes in the visual rendition of “Brown Skin Girl.” This visual rendition features Adut Akech, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, and both of Beyonce’s daughters. Between Blue Ivy’s solo, the brown-skin-glow that dominates the footage, and the image of black female camaraderie, the video is a brilliant portrait of the love between black women. This portrait, in conveying a rarely captured beauty, proved particularly resonant.
However, despite the emotional experience “Brown Skin Girl” incites, the irony of the film is not lost in the lure of representation.
By irony, I speak specifically to the reality that though Beyonce is a black woman, and I credit Beyonce with owning her blackness before it was cool, she pandered/panders a European aesthetic to black women. Thus, it is ironic, and in the best interest of the white media, to select such a star to popularize blackness in this “black lives matter” moment. Similarly, Beyonce and Jay-Z (who makes an unsurprising cameo in the film) emege as models for black success, who attain a distorted black royalty draped in the white man’s riches and adorned with a favorable western gaze, illuminate what true black power will never be: popular. At best, those seeking to see images like themselves will get ironic representations, like Black is King, that reek of an imperialistic informant.
Additionally, it is ironic that the same attributes that propelled Beyonce into stardom are now draped in fabric from the continent and employed to proclaim blackness as beautiful. This image repeats the pervasive contemporary caption that posits blackness as mattering under specific circumstances.
Beyonce’s repurposed image proves less sinister than the fact that Black is King is modeled after The Lion King, a popular children’s film with notable racial undertones. Additionally, the film is on Disney plus. Walt Disney, was, of course, a racist whose films played an integral role in implementing racial stereotypes in the minds of young children. Disney’s influence gifted children prejudices to internalize and project into their adult realities. Thus, though marketed as “for the black collective,” this film mimics the continued use of the black body to imbue economic profit for racists. Moreover, what viewers witness in Black as King is not blackness at all, but a blackness distorted by the white imaginary and white commodofication of color into commerce.
This profit is not just economical, it encompasses a social and symbolic component integral to maintaining race as a social inheritance. Black is King surfaces to mollify racial tensions with representational comfort. Black as King holds hands with the “Black Lives Matter” murals and other performative gestures that paint representation as reparations. These images posit white supremacy as negotiated through optics that appear to represent a new America. These images coddle those seeking to see themselves in the white man’s portrait into a complacency where they feel like they have accomplished what they have never even attempted. Thus, Black is King exists to provide a cataclysmic comfort that projects a changed world where whites continue to win in what seems like a victory for the black collective. This charade reminds me of my engagement with cyclical rides as a child. On these rides, I would wave to my parents every time I saw them as if seeing them for the first time. The behavior mirrors what the white media continues to do to the black collective, imposing old evils as nuance to veil a cyclical reality.
While “Brown Skin Girl” captures the film’s most resonant images, the most poignant line from the film comes in the beginning. Beyonce states: “someday you will see yourself where you started.” This line resonates as it articulates the importance of origin. Taken at surface level, the film embodies this truth through Beyonce who has, over the last few years, morphed into her mother’s clone. This individual transformation personifies the process that we experience collectively. We are bound to become our past, but if we start from a point of disruption, as engendered by the white media, and not heirs of a throne that predates western civilization, we become hegemonic property to be bought and sold by those who use our blackness to cast their bids.