Black Is King Works Best When Beyoncé Can Be Beyoncé

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She is bigger than the House of Mouse, bigger than their cat story.
Photo: Andrew White/Parkwood Entertainment

More interesting to me than all hour and 58 minutes of last year’s The Lion King remake was its press tour and how disinterested Beyoncé seemed to be with it. She’d made better movies (Dreamgirls, Obsessed), been on bigger platforms (her concert specials for HBO, Homecoming for Netflix), been a part of telling stories that were just as iconic (again, Dreamgirls and, in another sense, singing at Obama’s inauguration). The live-action Lion King seemed like an odd way for a famously strategic megastar to spend her time; what could it give her that she didn’t already have, what legacy would it build that she hadn’t already constructed for herself a million times over? I imagined her politely declining to record her dialogue in a booth, instead AirDropping voice memos of her lines directly to Bob Iger himself, expecting him to just figure it out and make sure it got to the right people. When she announced her companion album The Gift and its companion visual reinterpretation of the Lion King itself, it made sense: Her dozen lines as Nala were a way to get this larger, more robust vision out into the world.

The original movie guides the narrative, but most of Black Is King is completely new, a hybrid of myth, of folk, of memories, and Hollywood. There’s a headstrong prince who loves to get into trouble, the death of a wise, powerful father, the uncertainty of filling that void, the way loving a woman — and the love of a woman — prepares him for the challenges of his life. Dialogue from the live-action Lion King film is used in Beyoncé’s version, along with her own reflections on Blackness, womanhood, and power. Other voices share their experiences of Black identity and the Black diaspora. Blue Ivy co-stars, Jay-Z shows up, her collaborators and friends make surprising, delightful appearances.

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