In today’s world, the line between film and other artistic mediums is constantly blurred. Most recently, and seemingly more common, the visual album has become more popular within the music industry. Typically used as a companion to an artist’s musical album, a visual album helps to explore themes represented in songs. Sometimes, visual albums can be used to make a political or social statement that is personal to the artist. But, with recent releases, some of the basics of what makes a film – a story, cinematography, underlying themes – have been exemplified. The sheer production value of them qualify them as films.
Let’s take two of the most well-known and recent visual albums, both by Beyoncé. Both of her visual albums combine the underlying themes represented in her music as well as larger political and societal messages that are both, what I argue, very essential watching.
Beyoncé’s self-titled album in 2013, released as a surprise in the middle of the night, was the precursor to her more recent visual albums, as it featured a music video for every song. With her 2016 release of Lemonade, however, each of the videos in this visual album flowed seamlessly from song to song, featuring title cards for different chapters. It was a mixture of spoken word poetry (written by Warsan Shire and spoken by Beyoncé) and music – like in film, the poetry and music worked in tandem with the film’s visuals in order to create a cohesive thread throughout the visual album. The album told a story, centered around Black American womanhood, with references to important Black films like Daughters of the Dust (dir. Julie Dash, 1991), Black literature, and the African diaspora. The visual album, in some songs, also alludes to wider social and political commentary, specifically with the “Formation” video directly referencing famous images from Black Lives Matter protests. Its visuals were stunning – though the entire visual album is not streaming (unless you look deeper into YouTube), the individual music videos are – with lots of lush colors and intricately framed shots. Rather than a visual album, it looks and feels like a more avant-garde film.
With her most recent visual album, 2020’s Black is King (now streaming on Disney+), Beyoncé, who wrote and directed the piece, enhanced everything previously mentioned. The visual album, meant to be a companion piece to her 2019 album The Gift which was itself a companion to The Lion King (dir. Jon Favreau, 2019), seemed to vaguely retell the story of The Lion King. There was a mixture of spoken word (once again written by Warsan Shire) with the album’s songs. The visuals, once again, are beautifully lush and intricately crafted, with shot after shot even more beautiful to see. One critic even started to compare the visuals to that of acclaimed filmmaker Terence Malick. And the critic is right! There are shots that echo Malick in terms of sweeping vistas mixed with the powerful poetry and character close-ups. However, the biggest takeaway from the album is the overarching celebration of Black culture. Though she was the main director of the album, Beyoncé worked with various other Black filmmakers, such as Blitz Bazawule the director of 2018’s The Burial of Kojo, and hired other Black creatives, typically from the local filming locations, to contribute to the technical work of the film. There was a showcase and celebration of different hairstyles, of intricate costume design, of the varied landscapes, of different African cultures, of family, of life in general. The visual album is truly elevated to a film because of this celebration combined with sweeping visuals.
For non-Black audiences, both of these visual albums are incredibly essential viewing. In the case of Lemonade, the visual album focuses on all aspects of Black womanhood – from growing up to forming relationships to motherhood. With Black is King, it is centered around Black joy – something that is rarely represented in more mainstream media, as mainstream media/Hollywood seem to think that the only way that Black actors can win awards/have emotional performances is if they are portrayed as slaves. The media, especially Hollywood, focuses so much on Black culture being reduced down to just pain and suffering that we, as non-Black audiences, have almost become desensitized and Black viewers are unable to see themselves represented on screen without being forced through that pain. Additionally, as many non-Black viewers tend to lump Black and African culture as a singular monolith, we are often blind to see the slight differences in different African cultures. This also creates the need for more Black film and art critics so that we, as non-Black audiences, do not conflate these differences as simply “things we cannot understand.”
Civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman once said “You can’t be what you can’t see” and Beyoncé has taken that to heart. With her visual albums, she is able to use her large platform to create the space and the opportunities for younger Black people to see themselves and their creative work represented in film. Because of the work on her visual albums, Black creatives who may not have recognized by Hollywood will now receive more attention and possibly more job opportunities.
Beyoncé’s visual albums should be what the film industry aims for – visually stunning film with important social commentary and the space and opportunities for underrepresented people to see themselves and their work.