Beyoncé is making Disney look bad. Not because there is anything wrong with her second visual album, Black Is King, which debuted on Disney+ on Friday — actually, quite the opposite. Using the music from The Gift, her tie-in soundtrack to 2019’s photorealistic remake of The Lion King, Beyoncé re-centers the story of a young ruler who goes astray before reconnecting with his roots as an unmistakably African story, one that blows both of Disney’s previous attempts out of the water.
While Disney has represented every continent by this point, it’s pretty telling that its most famous film set in Africa is about animals rather than people. Making matters worse, the original 1994 Lion King failed to highlight Black or African artists, relying instead on music and lyrics by Tim Rice and Elton John and a score by German Hans Zimmer. As Vulture notes, outside of the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” and “The Circle of Life,” “the music of The Lion King failed to evoke Africa.” 2019’s The Lion King made minor improvements, including more diverse voice actors and booting the racist hyenas, but it still had a white director and, with its conception of “Africa” still equating to “singing warthogs,” failed to substantively represent a culturally and geographically diverse part of the world.
Black Is King, which is dedicated to Beyoncé’s son, reclaims The Lion King as an almost elemental story about the legacy of Africa, where Simba’s birthright is his shared heritage of the continent (“you’re the key to the kingdom“). To tell the story, Beyoncé collaborated with directors like British-Nigerian artist Jenn Nkiru and New York-based Ghanaian artist Blitz Bazawule, and brought in singers and rappers from Nigeria, South Africa, and Cameroon, as well as the United States. There are lyrics in Bambara, Zulu, Xhosa, and Swahili and at certain points, it seems to pull inspiration from great African directors like Mauritania’s Med Hondo and Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty.
Black Is King isn’t above criticism itself: As The Atlantic has written, Beyoncé “bafflingly omits East African voices, despite The Lion King‘s deep debt to that region.” Some have also bristled at the way Black Is King portrays Africa; the use of “face and body paintings, feathers, and animal fur … perhaps a little naively missed the pulse of how many young, urban Africans … want to see themselves,” Moky Makura writes for CNN.
Still, Black Is King is a gorgeous celebration of Africa, and one made even sharper by its presence on Disney+ — where it can easily be watched beside its far inferior source material. Jeva Lange