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What We Think of Beyonce’s ‘Black Is King’

  • August 04, 2020

Perhaps that’s unfair; she does, after all, amalgamate them into a world of her own making. But while Black may be king, this project and all its trappings position its auteur, as the voice-over says in the film, as the “divine archetype.” In that context, she raised the stakes herself.

A little over an hour into “Black Is King,” Beyoncé, with tears in her eyes, places a baby boy, wrapped in a blanket, up a river inside a reed basket. Unlike the mélange of sounds — Afropop, dancehall, hip-hop, and soul — that I’d heard up to this point, the accompanying ballad, “Otherside,” was such a sonic break from the high-tempo energy that I paused the stream several times. I was moved by this scene of maternal sacrifice, for even though I knew the plot of “The Lion King,” I found myself hoping that this baby would survive the currents of the rushing river.

This is because that baby was never just a baby, and this story was never really simply the human version of Simba’s journey into manhood, much less kingship. On the surface, this river bed scene is an update of that Old Testament story in which Jochebed, the mother of Moses, placed him in the Nile River to protect him from being killed. But, the waters here also invoke the Middle Passage, with each ripple break recalling the fateful journey in which New World slavery, and America itself, was born.

Moses has always loomed large among African-Americans seeking freedom. It is why Harriet Tubman sang the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” as a code to identify herself to those enslaved people who wanted to go with her to the Promised Land. And while “Black Is King” shares those 19th-century aspirations of equality and Black dignity, it, in our age of Black Lives Matter, knows it has to resort to mythmaking since racial justice remains as firm as the shifting sands that backdrop so much of this visual album.

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