Since the release of her eponymous album in 2013, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has developed a reputation for creating film-length visual extravaganzas to go along with her music. From Beyoncé and Lemonade to Homecoming and most recently Black is King, the Houston-born artist has used her visual albums to weave multimedia tapestries that present strong messages about art, femininity, blackness, and American culture.
The most recent film draws on Pan-Africanist and Afro-Futurist themes to communicate its message. But after looking more closely at the film’s deeper implications, one is made to question how much these themes are a facade covering over what Pope Francis calls “ideological neocolonialism.” A threat that has been of growing concern to African Catholics including Nigerian pro-life activist Obianuju Ekeocha and Guinean Robert Cardinal Sarah, ideological neocolonialism imposes Western, elitist values on developing countries, all in the name of humanitarianism and progress.
Black is King, which was released on July 31 via Disney+, is set to the music that originally made up the soundtrack of last year’s Lion King remake (in which Knowles starred). Sonically, the music ranges from American trap (a subgenre within hip hop) and R&B to the new West African genre known as Afrobeats, and features lesser-known artists from the US and Nigeria. The visuals are enthralling: stunning natural vistas filmed in the US, UK, Belgium, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa, elaborate wardrobes, and high-energy dancing make for an aesthetic delight.
The all-black cast—in their variety of shapes and sizes, hair textures, skin tones, and ethnicities—celebrates both the diversity within African and diasporic communities as well as their common roots. This sends a powerful message to audiences, especially to young people of color who are often made to feel like they are less valuable or beautiful because of the color of their skin. Songs like “Brown Skin Girl” will surely give much needed affirmation to girls whose looks don’t fit white standards of beauty.
Several of the film’s spoken interludes and its general aesthetic quality draw heavily on Pan-Africanist philosophy. Popularized by figures such as Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah in the first half of the 20th century, Pan-Africanism aimed to counter the effects of slavery and colonialism, unite descendants of enslaved Africans in the name of establishing bonds of solidarity, and celebrate their shared heritage.
While Pan-Africanism is a viable way for people of the diaspora to take pride in their heritage and fight for justice, can Beyoncé’s film really claim to be an example of Pan-Africanist art? This is coming from a recording artist working under the auspices of Sony Music and Disney+, major Western corporations whose economic, social, and ideological motives do not exactly line up well with Pan-African ideals.
To Beyoncé’s (and/or Sony’s) credit, numerous black artists, designers, and business owners were tapped in the making of the film. But the film’s general individualistic and consumeristic ethos (not to mention its prominent placement of high-end Western brands like Bentley and Burberry) speak more to the ideals of a decadent Western utopia than of Pan-Africanism.
In his recent book The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Sarah decries what he calls the West’s “funeral march of decadence.”
“The suicide of the West is tragic,” he writes. “Its rejections are leading all of humanity to a dead end….Westerners come to Africa with false, criminal values. I cannot accept this propagation of venom that threatens to destroy traditional African man.” He especially fears the dangers that Western corporations and NGOs bring to his home continent:
It is enough to observe the work in our countries of the large Western philanthropic foundations to understand what African man means in the view of the billionaires who finance them. They are convinced that they know better than we do the best policies for our continent. In reality, this elite has two obsessions: the drastic decrease of the African birthrate and economic development in the service of the objectives of the Western multinational corporations.
This fear was echoed in Obianuju Ekeocha’s letter to Melinda Gates, in which she expressed her concerns about the Gates Foundation’s attempt to sterilize African countries, all under the guise of promoting reproductive rights, as well the confusion toward sexual morality brought on by “the widespread influence of Western media, movies, and magazines.”
Cardinal Sarah’s comments on contemporary globalization also raise challenging questions that can be applied to the supposedly pro-African themes of the film:
Our Father thought that his children could be enriched by their differences. Today, globalization is contrary to the divine plan. It tends to make humanity uniform. Globalization means cutting man off from his roots, from his religion, from his culture, history, customs, and ancestors. He becomes stateless, without a country, without a land. He is at home everywhere and nowhere. Nevertheless, man’s wealth is the land that saw his birth and growth. He draws incalculable resources from that particular geographical space…. God wanted man to be rooted. He knows how important attachments are for good health. Man was not created to be an economic agent or a consumer.
One can argue that Black is King’s portrayal of the rich cultures of several African nations has the potential to challenge the globalization of Western cultural ideals. But the film’s portrayal of said cultures is thin, at best. It seems to be the case that Beyoncé is appropriating them for the sake of further propagating her own public image and success. The lyrics in “Mood 4 Eva” betray her allegiance to Western individualism and consumerism. “I’m so unbothered,” she raps, “y’all be so pressed while I’m raising daughters, sons of empires. Y’all make me chuckle, stay in your struggle.”
Were she truly committed to creating a platform for the many unique cultures of the African continent to be celebrated, she could have presented more about the actual people whose clothing and rituals she seemed to use as mere accessories. She could have incorporated the stories of the people who wear those clothes, practice those rituals, and embody those traditions. But such are the ways of postmodern technocratic globalism: celebrate diversity on the surface, while in reality eliminate the particularities of local cultures until all differences evaporate and we are all made one in our identity as consumers.
What, then, of Beyoncé’s use of religious imagery throughout the film? One can argue that the film’s deep spiritual symbolism counters its materialistic tendencies. But we must first ask what kind of spirituality she is presenting and the messages it sends to viewers.
The intro sequence combines Ethiopian Orthodox (Tewahedo) Christian and Yoruba rituals. Beyoncé has also been known to incorporate images from Vodou, a syncretization of Roman Catholicism and the Yoruba religion that often uses the images of Catholic saints to worship polytheistic deities, or orishas.
The history and current practice of Vodou, like those of Santeria, are complex and multilayered. For many enslaved people, this was one way to maintain their cultural heritage under the oppression of slavery and colonialism. Many converted to Catholicism against their will, and others converted not being thoroughly catechized. Thus was born the syncretic system of orishas-saints.
Beyoncé has been known to reference the orishas—namely Oshun, the river goddess—as well as the Virgin Mary, in performances and videos, the former in “Hold Up” and her performance at the 2017 Grammys, the latter in “You’re Mine” and in a widely shared pregnancy photoshoot.
Many have commented that these are merely different manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype and that Beyoncé should be commended for empowering women. But these depictions of female religious figures are hardly neutral. A closer look at Oshun and Mary will show that they are not the same. The Blessed Mother is a historical figure—a human—and Oshun is a deity. Mary’s sacredness (not divinity) is attributed to her obedience to God’s will and her perfect, self-sacrificial love. Myths about Oshun usually present her using her divine power to commit acts of violence and wreak havoc in order to accomplish her will.
Some santeros and practitioners of Vodou do not take the metaphysical dimensions of their religion as seriously as others. For some it is indeed a form of divination or witchcraft. For others it is solely a means of maintaining their cultural heritage. We are left to question whether Beyoncé falls into the former or latter camp. But the appearance of occult (baphomet horns, inversions of Christian imagery) and masonic (black and white checkerboards, all-seeing eyes, talk of good/evil dualism, and interior “illumination”) iconography and themes in other parts of Black is King don’t exactly further the film’s allegedly noble mission.
Something is to be said about the extent to which colonial powers that enforced Catholicism allowed for this mixture of pagan beliefs, in a way that Protestant colonizers and slave owners would (and could) not. The iconoclasm and distrust of carnality in Protestantism made it so that the spirituality of the enslaved (and native) peoples was to be totally eliminated from, rather than prudently integrated into, the practice of Christianity.
That being the case, Catholicism’s incorporation of local cultural and religious practices should have given more space to maintain elements of the Yoruba religion that did indeed align with orthodox Catholic doctrine. But because not all of the missionaries and catechists were holy or savvy enough to do the work of authentic inculturation with natives, it shouldn’t be surprising that they turned to syncretism.
If anything, the film’s portrayal of religion serves as a useful conversation starter about the ways colonization and evangelization were too often intertwined with each other. It can help us to ask what true inculturation should look like and how the wounds inflicted by colonialism can be healed.
But ultimately, this ambiguous amalgamation of religious symbols only furthers the film’s elitist ethos. Once again, Cardinal Sarah’s strong but well-reasoned critiques of Western culture shed light on this phenomenon:
The dream of the Western globalized elite is precisely to establish a new world religion…It is supposedly necessary to arrive at a worldwide, global religion, a religion without God, without doctrine, and without moral teaching, a religion of consensus. In reality, this religion would end up being at the service of financial interests alone. Religion is a personal relationship between a man and God. How can anyone imagine the life of this love caught in the shapeless muddle of a worldwide ideology? The search for a global religious consensus is fallacious and stupid.
Though the integrity of Black is King’s message is questionable, its positive elements should be noted. The film has the power to open up important conversations about culture, the legacy of colonialism, and the future of the African continent. There’s a reason why several of the most recent popes referred to Africa as “the future of the Church.” Black is King can at least give viewers a snapshot of why they would make such an assertion.
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