Beyoncé‘s recently released visual album Black Is King embraces Africa- past, present, and future. The film is liberatory, cajoling the audience to move through time and place in search of an authentic self. Beyoncé rejects the double consciousness DuBois described in The Souls of Black Folk, and, instead, invents a world in which Black people see themselves, not through the eyes of their oppressors, but through the lives, actions, and perspectives of other Black people. The spirits are present. The elders are present. What is not present is the white gaze. This film is for Black people as is evidenced by the film’s resistance to explain or contextualize Black experiences and ways of knowing.
The film connects Black people to the universe and the galaxies beyond the Milky Way. In doing so, the film constructs Black people and their culture as timeless and infinite. Never have they not existed, and never shall they not exist. Black people are simultaneously fully embodied and ethereal. The locales are familiar and otherworldly. The fast-paced editing keeps the audience disconcerted, forcing the viewer to choose feeling over thinking. The film happens, and you receive it.
For those who have seen Janelle Monae’s visual album Dirty Computer, you will find little similarity. Monae’s “emotion picture” has a more defined narrative structure and accompanying character development. Beyoncé‘s film, informed by the plot of The Lion King, is more fractured and disjointed than Monae’s. However, both films intend to liberate viewers. (I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that Beyoncé‘s film did little to push back on patriarchal and consumerist systems of oppression. Heteronormativity and American capitalism are on full display.)
The visual album as an art form can be transformative. By the end of Black Is King, what I appreciated most was the unmitigated joy of the performers. Beyoncé is good at capturing Black joy, and I realized that I needed to see that joy more than I needed a progressive and historically accurate (Black is King is neither) representation of Africa and its descendents in the Diaspora.