Friday, July 31, 2020

Painting Pictures of Paradise: BLACK IS KING

Beyoncé’s new film Black is King comes to us wrapped in the guise of a vague retelling of The Lion King, but that’s a simple way of stating the case, and just one element at play here. It’s more a string of sensational images and sounds—a feature-length visual album pouring out a proud celebration of the African diaspora, of Black creativity, exuberantly assembled in one eye-boggling music video after the next. Unlike Lemonade, her 2016 masterwork in which the personal and the political tightly intertwine in an allusive crescendo of pain and grace, there’s less of a narrative or emotional throughline at play in this new effort—even losing, for most of the back half, a thin motif of references to Simba’s story, including interpolated lines from James Earl Jones and others. It trades its conceit for an eruption of kaleidoscopic imagination. Like Lemonade, it studiously brings an album’s worth of songs to life in indelible visual creation. It, too, is strung along by Warsan Shire poetry coolly recited in hushed tones over a hodgepodge mixture of film stocks and shooting styles freely intercut. These shots, flowing with energy, show us a cavalcade of colorful choreography in stunning backdrops both real (stunning African vistas) and unreal (fantastical sets and CG extensions). It’s abstract and concrete— at times Koyaanisqatsi by way of Khalik Allah.

This may not have the focus and power of her earlier film, but Black is King has scope and eclecticism, just as likely to have Jay-Z rolling up in a leopard-print convertible as it is to look down on a line of blue-painted men carrying a spare white coffin across a pure-white space or a lone figure nearly lost in a drone shot of endless dunes. Drawn from The Gift, her 2019 album much better than Jon Favreau’s ill-conceived photo-real Lion King remake that was ostensibly its inspiration, the songs are a swirling mix of funky Afro-pop grooves, tribal drums, swaggering hip-hop, soulful R&B phrasing, and soaring Gospel choirs. They overflow with love for the act of creativity that birthed them, their subjects ("Brown Skin Girl" saying "They'll never take 'My Power'"), and the generosity of Beyoncé in being both ringmaster and host, the center of attention and the one inviting others to share in the spectacle.

She invites into the sequences a number of guest artists (Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid) and cameos (Lupita N’yongo, Kelly Rowland, family members), trading verses and ceding center frame to dancers echoing, incorporating, and conquering everything from Disney's animated big cat classic to Esther Williams aquatic ballets, from Hype Williams high-contrast, high-gloss videos to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria’s Volk. They pose with Busby Berkeley symmetry or spring with loose-limbed alacrity. The fashions and style are similarly vibrant mashups donned with easy charm and effortlessly effortful beauty: blaxploitation fringes and Nefertiti hair, tribal face paint and rainbow leotards. We see rooms filled with geometric black-and-white-print prosceniums, a hearse lit up like a party bus, a basket floating down the river. We see a seaside baptism, a star field crossfade with old kings, a large snake slither up shoulders.

Throughout it all, Beyoncé is Earth-mother, spiritual advisor, sensual appreciator, tableaux icon, Queen. Her character shifts, but her presence is constant. On screen, she dominates, sharing space without conceding her point, inhabiting her frames. It’s a film full of her talent, yes, but also love for her collaborators, and for Blackness as a creative energy. Behind the scenes, she’s marshaling a small army of directors, cinematographers, and stylists. She's in total control of a film that's alternately moving, hypnotic, and overwhelmingly all over the place. Once again she’s made a film in which she gathers up the past represented in these layers of influence, and points a way toward a future reformed in the spirit of love and music. It’s self-mythology as world art, free-floating signifiers caught in the orbit of Beyoncé in all her glory.

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