In recent years, Beyoncé has prefaced her musical homecomings with a glimpse of the final destination. She released the song “Formation” well ahead of her 2016 visual album, Lemonade, which contained lessons in ballads and rock anthems alike about how to go through despair and return to oneself again. Though it debuted early, “Formation” serves as the record’s final track and credits music, announcing a new beginning for Beyoncé and an end to heartbreak in its many forms.
Similarly, the song “Black Parade” debuted this year on Juneteenth but plays at the end of Black Is King, Beyoncé’s visual project released on Disney+ last month. With a playful burst of trumpets and bass, the song is a departure from the Afrobeat and South African house music that give the album its collaborative, diasporic feel. Between Black Is King and Lemonade was the 2019 concert film Homecoming, which celebrated the marching-band traditions of historically Black colleges and universities in the American South. Together, these works comprise a trilogy of Beyoncé’s sonic and visual teachings about ideas of home and exile, and the particular meaning they hold for Black Americans.
The final installment in this unofficial trilogy, Black Is King is the most joyful and epic journey of the three. A follow-up to the 2019 soundtrack that Beyoncé curated for The Lion King, the film has been acclaimed for its vivid portrait of Black diasporic beauty—and is best understood by first diving deep into the specifics of the visual story it tells. The film opens with a bird’s-eye view of a basket floating down a river. Beyoncé first appears alone at the water’s edge dressed in flowing white, but in the next scene, she’s cradling a baby. She joins other Black mothers in a ritual blessing of newborns; with this, the women symbolically hand the infants a legacy that will guide them into the world. By the end of the sequence, the baby has grown into a young boy, a human stand-in for the lion cub Simba. As his guide, Beyoncé readies him for a journey into his own history that will prepare him to become king.
Viewers are reminded repeatedly in song, prose, and images that Blackness is inherently regal, even divine. As the film’s narrator and central figure, Beyoncé is opulently adorned, and so is everyone else onscreen. In a monologue about beauty, Beyoncé declares, “Black is king.” In another scene, a woman proclaims, “I can’t say I believe in God and call myself a child of God, and then not see myself as a god.” The production of Black Is King primarily employed African musicians, dancers, choreographers, and designers, and it is their work that helps shape Beyoncé’s vision of a universal Black home. In a sequence set to the Afrobeat pop song “Water,” co-written by the HBCU graduate Nana Afriyie, footage of everyday African people is intercut with shots of the cast. The message is that, across the continent’s plains, cities, and streams, the majesty of Blackness is constant.
The film contains two crisscrossing stories that underscore the sacredness of Black beauty—one narrative is linear, the other curved like a boomerang. The linear story is marked by dialogue from The Lion King, and mostly follows the same order as the songs from the movie’s 2019 soundtrack, The Gift. Across the segments that serve as mini music videos for this arc, the young Simba meets his destiny. He learns the lessons of his father, Mufasa (to the song “Find Your Way Back”); encounters his dangerous uncle (“Don’t Jealous Me” and “Scar”); lives an indulgent life in exile (“Mood 4 Eva”); returns to fight for his throne (“My Power”); and finally reclaims his crown (“Keys to the Kingdom”).
In the second narrative, which is more fantastical and meditative, Beyoncé is a guide on a metaphorical journey toward Black pride. The story’s lessons are made plain by the lyrics of the accompanying songs, which argue, for example, that Black people should heed ancestral wisdom (“Ja Ara é”), remember that they are royalty (“Already”), and honor their mothers (“Brown Skin Girl”). During this arc, viewers learn the origin of the basket on the river. With an apparent climate disaster bringing the world to an end, Beyoncé is revealed as the mother of the lost baby as she sets him afloat on the water. Later, “Simba” is reunited with his mother and father when he floats up to the ancestral plane. The circle of life is nearly complete, and it is this return that drives Simba to reclaim his power.
Simba’s journey in Black Is King echoes Black Americans’ search for an ancestral home. The legacy of enslavement and the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans out of the South yielded two kinds of homelands for Black folks in the U.S. There is the land of their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, welcoming them from porches across the South. Then, there is the real and imagined homeland of Africa along the continent’s western coast, places such as Nigeria or the Senegambia, where their great-great-great-great-grandmothers were taken from centuries ago. In an attempt to connect with an original motherland, many Black Americans have turned to controversial ancestry tests or taken trips to the countries from where Africans are believed to have been stolen in the greatest numbers.
This desire to reclaim home is not unlike the longing that, in part, brought waves of Black people back to the American South after the Great Migration, in a reverse exodus that has continued since the 1960s. As a daughter of not only Texas, but also Louisiana and Alabama, Beyoncé joins a line of southern Black women artists such as Aretha Franklin, Alice Walker, and Kara Walker—women whose work anchors Black people in a regional home that is at once the site of brutality and resilient beauty. Black Is King focuses on the latter inheritance: In this fictional world where Blackness is the default, there are no white people or white oppression, no legacy of colonialism or enslavement to contend with.
Since its release, Black Is King has been praised for bringing together so many different aspects of the African diaspora, and for its deft presentation of Blackness. But the project has also been criticized for romanticizing, decontextualizing, and homogenizing diverse African cultures for Western consumption. The film samples the continent for its aesthetics—such as Yoruba masquerades, Fulani braids, Xhosa rap verses, and Zulu chants—syncretizing and combining cultures in the way that the descendants of Africans in the West have always done. When the Black Is King trailer was released, new criticism from fans living in Africa reflected earlier observations about The Gift, which didn’t include any artists from the region that inspired the Disney film.
There is danger in Black Is King’s kind of obfuscating unity. The film harkens back to an imagined, royal, pre-colonial past and erases the realities of different countries on the African continent today. In the context of global capitalism, Black Is King’s digestible amalgamation of African cultures markets the sense of nostalgia and wholeness desired by many Black people living in America, including those whose ancestors were not enslaved. Pan-African politics and pan-African aesthetics often have very different goals—the former seeks the unification of African countries to resist oppression, while the latter collapses African cultures into palatable categories for sale. Black Is King doesn’t attempt to distinguish between politics and aesthetics. Instead, the project seeks to offer a universal lesson: that one’s true home is a proud self grounded by strong roots, even if the story behind those roots is fictional or speculative.
By the time we arrive at the credits of Black Is King, Beyoncé has announced that a new parade, a new movement homeward, has begun. After two choruses anchored by trumpet flourishes and stately tuba and bass, she announces: “I’m goin’ back to the South / I’m goin’ back back back back / where my roots ain’t watered down / growing growing like a baobab tree.” Though perhaps oversimplified, the film’s conclusion that Black beauty and history are necessary sources of Black self-determination in the modern world is a hopeful one. In watching Black Is King, those who feel adrift can take another kind of imperfect trip home.