The film’s origins might lead you to think this is some sort of commercial sellout. It’s a companion piece to last year’s mixtape The Lion King: The Gift, itself an extension of the hugely successful remake of The Lion King for which Beyonce provided her voice. And it’s streaming on Disney+, the first of several planned projects between Bey and the world’s foremost entertainment conglomerate, with snippets of dialogue from the new Lion King incorporated into the music (which, frankly, should have been cut out entirely).
It does tell a story — in broad, impressionistic strokes — that recalls King Simba’s rise to power, with biblical parallels thrown in (the boy king, like baby Moses, is placed in a basket and rushed down a river). Beyonce even positions herself as the Mother Mary of the piece: Not only are her own children front and center, but she strikes plenty of beatific poses throughout.
But for all its associations to a mediocre Disney cash-in, Black Is King turns out to be one of the most gorgeous music videos ever made, a regal 85-minute procession of one stunning, arresting image after another. From a filmmaking perspective, Black Is King tips its hat to the breathy mysticism of Terrence Malick, and the way it refracts sacred imagery through a slightly surrealist lens has a hint of Alejandro Jodorowsky to it. I’m also reminded of Charles Burnett and Barry Jenkins and Julie Dash, filmmakers who so lovingly photograph Black faces in settings both otherworldly and mundane, and films like Black Orpheus and Mother of George, which revel in the vibrant colors of Africa.
Musically, Black Is King isn’t as bracing as Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled LP, or as nakedly honest and stylistically unexpected as 2016’s Lemonade. But it’s another compelling entry in Beyonce’s campaign to be the ultimate auteur of contemporary pop music: She’s in complete control of every element here, confidently so, and the texture and warmth she brings to this project suggests it should stay that way.