Back in 2002, 20-year-old Beyoncé was appearing as Austin Powers’s love interest in Goldmember. She’s come some way since. In fact, as her visual album Black Is King drops, it’s safe to say that Beyoncé is now not just one of the biggest pop stars on the planet but one of the most significant film-makers too. Perhaps that hasn’t been recognised up to now due to her collaborative approach, which doesn’t fit into familiar “auteur” boxes, or because her visual work is not narrative-led, or presented through the usual cinematic channels, but as well as music, it’s clear Beyoncé has significant clout in film these days.
Exhibit A would be her outstanding Lemonade visual album of 2016 (as with all her work, she is credited as co-director). The film fused an array of influences – from Yoruba mythology to civil rights history and Afrofuturism – into a lush assertion of black femininity. It also demonstrated her deep knowledge of avant garde cinema. Among its references were Julie Dash’s pioneering 1991 indie Daughters of the Dust, Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist, Jonas Mekas, David Lynch, Kasi Lemmons, Terence Nance and Terrence Malick (with whom co-director Kahlil Joseph worked). Another co-director, Melina Matsoukas, went on to direct last year’s Queen & Slim.
It hasn’t stopped there. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Apeshit video, shot in the Louvre, saw the couple brazenly claiming their place at western culture’s top table. The poster for their 2018 On the Run II tour – the couple astride a motorcycle with a horned cow’s skull on the front – referenced Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s landmark 1973 film, Touki-Bouki. Even her 2019 Homecoming concert movie was a critical triumph that left no doubts as to Beyoncé’s creative clout.
Black Is King continues this journey. The film is a spin-off from last year’s album The Lion King: The Gift (itself a byproduct of the Disney film), intended to “celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry”. Beyoncé has, she says, spent the past year filming, editing and researching it, and her collaborators include creatives from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Peckham (Nigerian-British director Jenn Nkiru).
At the outset, some on social media were critical of the film’s vision of a homogeneous, stereotypical Africa of animal skins and facepaints, as opposed to, say, traffic jams, skyscrapers and people griping on social media. Beyoncé has “Wakandafied” Africa, say her detractors. But, you suspect, that’s kind of the point. Reviews are praising Black Is King as “a love letter to the black diaspora” and “designed to create debate, discourse and aesthetic iconography”. Beyoncé is not trying to capture the state of the continent; more to give black identity some utopian, universal form of visual expression. In the current moment, that’s a valuable undertaking. Once again, she’s sticking her neck out and putting her money (or at least Disney’s money) where her mouth is.