Black Is King (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An interesting visual album from Beyoncé

I am not much of an American pop music aficionado, but I certainly know how popular Beyoncé has been during last two decades. To be frank with you, I usually regarded her as a merely famous singer who appeared in movies from time to time, but then I came to admire her undeniable star quality and presence quite more than before after watching her Netflix concert film “Homecoming” (2019), which is one of the best concert films of the last decade in my inconsequential opinion. As mesmerized by her indisputable beauty, charisma, talent, I had some second thoughts on her artistic quality, and I even lamented on how the hell she has not yet gotten a chance for fully utilizing her beauty and charisma on the screen (Remember how she was somehow overshadowed by Jennifer Hudson during the first half of “Dreamgirls” (2006)?)

Anyway, when I heard about Beyoncé’s musical film/visual album “Black Is King” being released on Disney+ on last Friday, I did not even know that it is actually a video companion to her 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift”, which is, yes, a tie-in album for the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”. Because I skipped a chance to watch that feature film simply because my expectation was quickly shrunk after watching its bland trailer, I cannot possibly comment on that feature film where she gave a voice performance as one of the main characters, but I can tell you instead that “Black Is King” is another interesting achievement from Beyoncé, and she surely shines again under her full artistic control.

The film is basically a series of music video clips strung together via a number of common cultural/ethnical themes, and you could actually enjoy them even without the occasional insertions of the dialogues from the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”, though it goes without saying that the African cultural elements in that film are a part of the source of inspiration for the songs and the accompanying visual moments in “Black Is King”. Deliberately emphasizing these distinctive moments and then mixing them along with modern American pop elements on the screen, Beyoncé apparently attempts to deliver messages of African American heritage and empowerment here, which are alternatively subtle and blatant as effortlessly mingled with strikingly beautiful visual moments.

Above all, Beyoncé, who also serves as co-director/co-producer of the film, surely knows how to grab the attention of her audiences right from the beginning. The first song of her album is accompanied with a gorgeous sequence consisting of various landscapes including a wide sea beach on which she and several other figures wander, and I was particularly amused by a seemingly biblical object floating along a big river at one point.

After this part, the film gradually builds up a sort of narrative around a little young African boy who will succeed his father just like the young hero of “The Lion King”. At first, we see this boy being designated as his father’s heir apparent, and then there comes a nightmarish moment when their village is suddenly intruded by a bunch of bikers wearing crimson red outfits. I have no idea on how to interpret this particular moment, but then things get more interesting as the boy subsequently blunders into a slum neighborhood of some modern African city, and that is followed by a sort of twisted coming-of-age process for him.

Beyoncé keeps delivering more impressive visual moments to behold for their bold cultural beauty. In case of one music video clip, it shows a rich African guy enjoying and flaunting his wealth in his big mansion where he is served by Caucasian butler and servants, and we later see the boy roaming around in the mansion. I wonder whether he is simply dreaming for success, power, fame as reflected by a certain subsequent moment, but Beyoncé lets this sequence open to interpretation just like she did in that iconic music video of hers in 2016.

Meanwhile, the elements from the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” keep appearing as demanded, but they are soon overshadowed by the continuing stream of artistic creativity envisioned by Beyoncé and her artistic collaborators. Around the second half of the film, she lets several other famous artists including Pharrell Williams and her young daughter Blue Ivy Carter take the spotlight for a while at times, and Williams has a terrific scene where he sings and dances alone in front of a stack of blue plastic water containers on a remote field.

Despite many excellent visual moments to be cherished, the film feels less special compared to “Homecoming”. Sure, many songs appearing in the film are performed well on the whole, and Beyoncé constantly exudes her star presence as usual while deftly handling the lyrics of the songs in the film, but I must confess that none of them was particularly catchy to me. Personally, I wonder whether that is because I do not have much affinity toward American contemporary pop music.

Nevertheless, “Black Is King” still worked well on me in terms of visual aspects. No, I remain unwilling to see the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” (I still remember pretty well when I was rather repulsed by the supposedly realistic presentation of digital animal figures in that film, by the way), and I also do not have much will to buy and listen to “The Lion King: The Gift” at present, but I admire the creative efforts from Beyoncé and her artistic collaborators at least. It is indeed inherently derivative from the start, but I bet that it is more enjoyable and entertaining than the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”.

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