Beyoncé film sparks debate over Afrofuturism

Continental riffs: “Queen Bey” is the writer, director, and producer of Black Is King. © Disney+

Has Beyoncé romanticised Africa? The superstar’s new movie, the visual album Black Is King, has wowed the critics. But some say she has focused too much on what Africa was in the past.

A venerable old man wearing a crown and leopardskin robe sits surrounded by his family and exquisite works of art; a group of young men in pink suits sit staring out to sea; a beautiful woman cradles a child on a beach; four figures in zebra bodysuits race along a corridor, a boy hurtles through space like a silver meteor.

“You can’t wear a crown with your head down,” says the voice-over.

These are just a few of the scenes from Black Is King. Based on the music of the film The Lion King: The Gift, it is described by Disney+ as a tribute to “the voyages of black families, throughout time” and a celebration of black “resilience and culture […]. A story of how the people left most broken have an extraordinary gift and a purposeful future”.

The album has been received with huge acclaim all over the world. Beyoncé has even been credited with creating a new art form – a mixture of film, fashion, design, and music that conveys multiple symbolic and allegorical messages – in the cause of “Afrofuturism”, the practice of imagining what Black people could be in the future, based on who they were in the past.

But some critics, whilst acknowledging its flair and ambition, also have reservations. Even as Wesley Morris of the New York Times hailed it as a reminder that “beauty will make you tolerate anything”, two of his colleagues on the same paper raised questions about its authenticity as a portrait of a continent.

“Much will be debated about whether Black Is King is an African-American fantasy of Africa,” wrote Salamishah Tillet, while Jason Farago described it as “a cartoon fairyland”. Mark Richardson’s verdict in the Wall Street Journal was that “Black Is King is opulent and relentlessly beautiful, an escapist vision of paradise”.

Some of the most trenchant criticism has come from female writers and academics.

Jade Bentil, a researcher at Oxford University, complained in a tweet that Beyoncé had boiled down thousands of African cultures to further the cause of capitalism. The journalist Sophie Rosemont lamented the fact that the singer had focused primarily on tribal traditions: “It is too bad that Beyoncé doesn’t seem to take contemporary Africa into account.”

But others have expressed heartfelt gratitude to Beyoncé for celebrating their cultures.

“To be singing in my language of Xhosa – to stand in that place for my African people, I feel so honoured,” said one of the performers, Busiswa. “In the video, I felt like a sorceress, a queen – I felt everything majestic and royal. We were treated with the utmost care and respect, and being on that set was the most incredible experience of my whole life.”

Has Beyoncé romanticised Africa?

Regal dispute

Some say yes. The film offers a view of Africa that focuses too much on what Africa was in the past, with no room to consider the Africa of now. The continent continues to be perceived as a monolithic space of masks and animal prints – both feature prominently in Black Is King’s visual narrative – rather than 54 countries, with a vast array of peoples, practices, languages, and cosmologies.

Others argue that Black Is King is triumphant proof that Beyoncé has decided to dedicate her work to supporting the cultural development of Black people the world over. As the academic Kinitra Brooks puts it today: “This visual album cements the reign of Queen Bey as a global icon, creating her own rules and markers of success. She has gone all-in on Black. And Beyoncé rarely, if ever, loses.”

You Decide

  1. Is “Afrofuturism” a useful word?
  2. Is Beyoncé one of the top 10 greatest living artists in the world today? Who is on your list?

Activities

  1. Look at some of the stunning images from Black Is King online. Then paint your own version of one of them.
  2. Write a short film review of the trailer.

Some People Say...

“A nation which refuses to learn from foreign culture is nothing but a nation of idiots and lunatics.”

Julius Nyerere (1922-1999), Tanzanian anti-colonial activist, politician, and political theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Beyoncé’s work has become more and more political, with a particular focus on what it means to be black. She has also given a great deal of practical support to black communities – most recently to those in Houston, that were badly affected by the pandemic. She campaigns for civil rights through her BeyGood Foundation, and has given a series of $10,000 (£8,000) grants to small black-owned businesses.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Beyoncé has given enough recognition to other artists. She has been praised for involving and crediting local stars from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Cameroon on her album, whereas other singers have sampled their work without acknowledgment. But she has also been accused of plagiarising the imagery of the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, the Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh, and the Nigerian artist Jelil Atiku.

Word Watch

Resilience
The ability to recover from shock. It comes from a Latin verb meaning “to spring back”.
Allegorical
Symbolic or metaphorical. A narrative in which a character, place, or event is used to tell a broader message about real-world issues. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible takes as its subject witch trials in 17th-Century USA, but is widely seen as an allegory of the 1950s’ persecution of suspected communists.
African-American fantasy
Critics have come up with a term for portraying Africa like this: “Wakandafication”, referring to the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda in the film Black Panther.
Opulent
Conspicuously rich. It comes from the Latin word for “wealth”.
Trenchant
Sharp-edged. It derives from a French verb meaning “to cut”.
Xhosa
The Xhosa are an ethnic group of about 8 million people living in South Africa. Their language is also spoken by some Zimbabweans.
Busiswa
A South African poet and singer-songwriter.

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