Beyoncé in Black Is King
Photo: Robin Harper
Inside The Visual World Of Beyoncé And 'Black Is King,' Her "Love Letter" To Black Men
For Women's History Month 2021, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the women artists nominated at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show. Today, we honor Beyoncé, who's currently nominated for nine GRAMMYs.
In a 2011 interview, Beyoncé revealed the things she wanted to accomplish before her 40th birthday. "I would love to direct—continue to learn videos and maybe by then [make] a film, a short film," she told Access Online. "[Or film] a documentary, I love documentaries." The singer will turn 40 in September having accomplished that goal.
Since that interview, the global pop star has continued to steadily hone her craft to become one of today's most influential visual storytellers in pop music. She began experimenting with visuals on her 2006 sophomore solo album, B'Day, but it wasn't until years later, when she released her surprise 2013 self-titled record that she delivered a true "visual album" that pushed the envelope—every song had a music video and all visuals were released together without any promotion.
The 2016 critically acclaimed Lemonade added a narrative between each music video—something Beyoncé hadn't done before—to create a cohesive look at Black generational trauma. In 2019, she released the GRAMMY-winning documentary Homecoming, giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at her preparation for her historic Coachella performance in between concert footage.
With the critically-acclaimed visual albums and documentary under her belt, she turned her sights to another visual goal. Last year, Beyoncé released Black Is King, the feature-length film inspired by her work with Disney on the 2019 remake of The Lion King. The nearly 90-minute film that premiered on Disney+ started as a quick test shoot in Beyoncé's backyard in The Hamptons but ultimately took more than a year to make and spanned several countries.
At the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, Black Is King is nominated for Best Music Film, following Beyoncé's win for Homecoming in the category in 2020. (She's also nominated for Best Music Video for "Brown Skin Girl," a single off the 2019 accompanying soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift.)
Ahead of this year's GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com spoke with Black Is King directors Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei and Jenn Nkiru, as well as producers Lauren Baker and Erinn Williams about how the project came together, why they envisioned it as a "love letter" to Black men amid a global pandemic and racial uprising, and Beyoncé's impact as a visual artist.
"Already" Was The First And, Originally, The Only Video Planned For Beyoncé's The Lion King: The Gift Album
Lauren Baker (Parkwood Entertainment producer): The entire idea came from just one music video. We were just going to shoot "Already" and that escalated into a short mini-film. 15 minutes tops. That escalated into the film that you see today.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment Associate Creative Director; co-director of Black Is King): She mentioned doing a test shoot [for "Already"] and she's the type of creator where it's just like, let's get the most out of this moment. If it's good, we're going to use it. We were testing the body paint and seeing if the body paint was going to work. We were like, "how can we use her time wisely?" We're at her house in the Hamptons. We noticed a tree. It's an elevated plane. [It] could be anywhere. Let's try this. I had to get in the tree first, that was the deal. I showed her the shot and that's how that happened. We were able to use that shot. That's kind of how we roll.
We started shooting a few videos and we were kind of expecting it [to turn into a larger project] because that's just what she does. She is the queen of visual albums. Once [we knew it'd be a visual album], we just switched gears. We had no time to really think about it or be too nervous. It was like "OK, what directors are we calling?"
Lauren Baker (Parkwood Entertainment producer): [There were] a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of early mornings. A lot of traveling. One minute we're supposed to be in New York for a week and now I'm there for three months. It was just a lot of managing, being sensitive to these creative minds and making sure that their vision is being heard, respected and shown. But, at the same time, being practical.
The Visual Album Was Inspired By The Lion King But Not Restricted By The Movie's Storyline
Lauren Baker (Parkwood Entertainment producer): Lion King obviously was a spark of it, but it kind of elevated once we got into it more. We still use the base storyline but it's a whole different world now.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director): Coming off the album and trying to approach this in a way that could appeal to adults and also children, [we wanted to] humanize these characters. How can people watching this see themselves?
Emmanuel Adjei (Black Is King director): What was really a gift from heaven is that the world was ready to digest a film like this. It's really a visual masterpiece. I feel like when [there was a] release date, we knew it was definitely going to do something. What we didn't know is that it would resonate with not only Black people but with a lot of people in the world. I guess that's where Disney also comes in. Suddenly, it becomes this modern tale. In that sense, [it] became a manifesto for minorities in general.
Beyoncé Wanted Black Is King To Represent The Global Diaspora
Jenn Nkiru (Black Is King director): Something we were constantly all thinking about is diaspora. The beauty is for people to understand that we are everywhere. We are all unified under a shared experience of Blackness. But culturally, depending on where you're at in the world, it's different. It was such a beautiful honor to be able to see such diversity within our culture. Oftentimes we're regarded as minorities, but I like to regard us as people of a global majority.
Emmanuel Adjei (Black Is King director): [A passion for Ghaniana and Nigerian cinema] is something I was brought up with so naturally that was kind of my reference frame. The thing that really inspired me the most about African cinema was the way they use their narrative strategies. It was, you could say, very non Western, but very Western influenced. It was a mixture of Western sci-fi mixed with African folklore stories and spirituality. That was such a unique library for me to tap into when making my own films. Black Is King is definitely a modern tale where that all collides.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director):
Beyoncé had very specific things that she wanted to do. Whether [incorporating] West African or South African culture, there were nuances that we liked that we wanted to spotlight. But there were also other things that directors brought to the table. Collectively, we picked and chose what we wanted to use and what was relevant to the different parts of the songs. There were conversations after conversations and text messages after text messages. It was a long process.
The Visual Album Was Completed Amid A Pandemic And Social Unrest
Erinn Williams (Parkwood Entertainment Head of Production): Every project is a little bit different because you have different collaborators and objectives. But I will say this one got to be just about the hardest ever because we had to finish it in a pandemic. We were still doing some small pickup shoots when we went into lockdown. In addition to the pandemic, we had the social [uprising] and the death of George Floyd. It's quite a lot to be creating a film for young men to value themselves at the same time young Black men are being killed by police. It was a very, very difficult thing for the team to process that while working on a film that really speaks to that. We knew that the timing was right, but you're talking about people who are triggered and raw at a time when they're trying to finish this film. It was challenging on many levels, emotionally and physically.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director): We had already started this idea. We were developing this self-identity piece and this love letter and next thing you know everything started happening. It was like if this is not what we need right now, I don't know what is. It was like this divine intervention. To be working on a piece like this and then going into this culturally and socially, I never really experienced anything like that in my life, as far as the creative process. Being able to do something that was a love letter to fellow women and men, and our culture, in a time when we need a pick-me-up, that is something that I will never forget.
Lauren Baker (Parkwood Entertainment Senior Creative Producer): We're in the process of editing, I'm going to color bays every day, in the middle of VFX. Having to work remotely with multiple post houses was crazy. The Internet's not good so I can't stream correctly. That part technically was tricky.
Dialogue In The Film Came From Behind The Scenes Footage Featuring Men In The Cast
Erinn Williams (Parkwood Entertainment executive producer): On one of our shoots, we were shooting some behind the scenes of some of the men that were in our cast. They had such beautiful statements about how they perceive themselves, how they would like to be seen [and] who they want to be.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director): We weren't expecting to use it and right before COVID-19, we were planning on doing some reshoots because we felt like there were some missing pieces in the story. After COVID happened, and we weren't able to travel, one of our team members came to us and showed us what she'd been working on. Erin was like "I think we can use these."' We presented the idea to Beyoncé and [she] was like go for it. I worked with [writer and editor] Andrew Morrow to start sculpting the story around these monologues.
The Project Is Also An Ode To Black Women, As Well As Other Women Of Color
Jenn Nkiru (Black Is King director): I had the idea to do a debutante ball [for "Brown Skin Girl"]. I was keen to do that based on it being a rite of passage, and thinking about what kind of what space could we create that allows for us to have an intergenerational conversation where you see women of all ages together celebrating young girls. Alongside our incredible A-list women that we had on screen, there were a lot of women who are community worker [and] activists. It's a spectrum of womanhood, from seeing presentations of Black and brown womanhood that's highly feminine to more masculine of center. I was really proud that we were able to achieve that.
Anywhere you have people of color, there is some form of a caste system or understanding that colorism is at play, you know, and so I really wanted to expand that conversation. We have women in the piece who are of southeast Asian heritage, I have an indigenous Brazilian woman in the piece. We wanted to have as expansive [of a] conversation as possible. That was really critical to me.
Beyoncé in Black Is King | Photo: Travis Matthews
Beyoncé Empowered Black Is King Collaborators Behind The Scenes
Erinn Williams (Parkwood Entertainment executive producer): She tends to surround her projects with a spectrum of people. With her being the lead director on this, the final creative decisions come from her, but she absolutely encourages collaboration, and bringing together disciplines that may not always function together.
Emmanuel Adjei (Black Is King director): She really made sure that [I] could feel comfortable in my position.
Jenn Nkiru (Black Is King director): What was extremely exciting about this was being able to do it on the scale we did it at. I very much brought myself and that's also to Beyoncé's credit because she instilled so much confidence in me to work the way I typically work within the scale we were working. A lot of the team that I typically work with in the smaller, tiny things I do, I was able to bring to a stage like this. I casted it myself, along with my choreographer. We were able to bring our own styling teams.
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director): She started at 14,15 years old and was sitting at tables at a young age where people would try to say that she didn't deserve [to be there] because she was so young. She brings that over into her leadership style. There's no limit to who and what age you can be to collaborate. If you have a vision and she sees the vision, she will rally. I was the first intern at her office in New York City and I worked my way up from intern to creative assistant, creative coordinator and manager. It was just doing whatever was necessary, taking the projects that weren't the most popular, trying to put your best foot forward in order to define your role and your position within a company. I think that has defined my journey into roles where I was taking the projects that were the most popular.
Beyoncé in Black Is King | Photo Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment
Beyoncé's Evolution As A Visual Artist Has Pushed The Industry As A Whole
Kwasi Fordjour (Parkwood Entertainment creative director; Black Is King director): It's been a very rewarding process to watch and how she's taken a more cinematic perspective to the visual album. When she first did it, talking about B'Day, Beyonce, there were music videos and then it slowly but surely involved into something more holistic, more narrative and more cinematic. I'm anxious to see how she furthers it and where she takes it next.
Erinn Williams (Parkwood Entertainment executive producer): I can go all the way back to the digital album because I [executive produced] on that as well. It was her first fully fleshed out visual album. She saw something that even the people on her team didn't see with that album. What I find remarkable about working with her is how much she elevates everything she touches. She directs the shoots. She directs in the edits. When we got to Black Is King, we imagined something that was going to be a real cultural stamp. It's what she does. She has a magic touch sometimes when it comes to being on the zeitgeist of something that is needed at that moment. She said it best when she said that if Lemonade was about generational curses, Black Is King is about generational wealth. That was behind every decision that she made.