Movie #3 is a dramatic and new choice – today I’m watching writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
I feel like I’m suffocating in the middle of the street and no one can see me dying.
Fact: I don’t watch a lot of straight up dramas. Fact: I watch them even less when they appear to be marketed to my own gender (female). I write them off as sappy. Uninteresting. Formulaic. At their worst, enforcing of gender stereotypes.
On those notes, Beyond the Lights didn’t really surprise me.
But it is important. Here’s why.
How many #chickflicks have you seen that are actually conceived by a woman?
How many are written by women? How many directed? If you do your research, you’ll usually find the answer to be very little. Maybe even none.
It is amazing to me how much Hollywood and mainstream arts culture seems to think men know what women are looking for when it comes to entertainment. It is amazing to me how much we, as women, have come to accept what we are given.
Beyond The Lights is the product of one woman: Gina Prince-Bythewood. If you grew up in the late ’90s, early aughts, you’ll remember her breakout feature Love & Basketball with Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps (at least, I remember this one – it was steamy, and sporty, and like, everybody in school that was anybody was going to watch it when their parents weren’t home).
She also adapted and directed the Sue Monk Kidd novel The Secret Life of Bees for the screen back in 2008. As a female writer-director, this is a woman making a name for herself. And as a woman of color, she also makes a name for her community, consistently casting with real diversity and choosing projects that not only allow for it, but speak to it.
This feature is no different. And I do think it should be celebrated for doing something few features with black protagonists do – crossing into the mainstream.
Think about it – what was the last mainstream Hollywood film you saw with an all black cast? By mainstream I mean, if you are white like me, was it marketed to you? Did it feel accessible to you? Did you even know it was playing? Although we see the “token” black character (or Asian, or Latino, we can keep going…) in standards like She’s All That and The Notebook (wait – is there anyone of color in The Notebook?), it would be downright striking to see not just one, but TWO non-white romantic leads. Enter Noni and Kaz.
Singularly, they are gorgeous, intelligent, well-played characters. As a couple, I find myself idealizing their chemistry, the way a good romance will situate you somewhere right between their bodies and their hearts. If you are looking for that feeling – you know the one – you may find it here.
However, like any standard, solid, pretty good, mainstream movie, Beyond The Lights has its problems. As a feminist, I look at Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character Noni, a suicidal pop-star, and I feel troubled. I feel troubled by the reduction of her manager mother to a controlling sort of bitch (though she is given some redemption in the end scenes), troubled by the film’s negative judgement of her sexed-up image, troubled by the dominance of men’s ideas in her life (be they of the abusive rapper on stage, or the savior she meets in Nate Parker’s Kaz). So, yes, points for diversity. Yet, no, this is not a breakthrough for women in general. At times, I thought it mostly a set-back.
I was pulled in by the opening scene of this one (and unfortunately, nothing after it really made me feel the same way). Namely, a young Noni stands on a beauty pageant stage and sings an acapella version of Nina Simone’s Blackbird. The song is important in context of the film culturally, and for the way Noni sings it – with no frills. In this scene, I am mostly taken by its contrast to the tap-dancing, made-up, plastic doll of a girl who performed before her. The choice feels brave, and it is filmed that way – starkly, plainly, and with the head shaking approval of her mother. It is a beautiful scene between a mother and her child. We see a little more of that at the end of the film, with Minnie Driver’s character listening to Noni sing on the radio – that same sense of quiet satisfaction.
Other Things to Notice:
Nate Parker is incredibly famous and important at the moment – his debut feature Birth of a Nation (yes, titled like that Birth of a Nation) was picked up at Sundance for a record-breaking $17.5 million. He’s incredibly handsome in this film (it’s #chickflick month and we’re watching a romance – he’s real good looking) and a compelling lead, but what’s more, Parker’s a very understated actor. Can’t wait to see what he’s done with his own film (Check out this Engadget article – in addition to the bidding war at Sundance, it covers some of the controversy over Beyond The Lights, and how Netflix may or may not have left it hanging in its search algorithms).
Hair. Hair is a big theme in this film, and as a caucasian person, I know I cannot truly speak to it here. But I do have questions about appearance. Specifically, the suggestion that Noni’s hair in its natural state is its best, most pure, and the most like herself. I’ve seen this played in other films before, but Beyond the Lights uses it as a huge metaphor, in the same way it uses her clothes to signify when she is being controlled (nearly naked, lots of straps, bondage wear), and when she is free (more covered, less color, relaxed).
*Edit: This Buzzfeed article addresses this question beautifully, looking at this film, as well as several others.
What I take issue with is the depiction of image as it relates to sex – that a comfortable, relaxed, natural Noni would be somehow more repressed in dress, and more so, that sex and nakedness is somehow impure, incorrect, and the product of those around her. I am always looking for a nice balance of women allowed to be themselves, but also allowed to be proud and pronounced with their body and their sex, as they see fit. I am a fan of our current pop culture that shows women having power on the stage – that is, assuming that power is coming from within themselves. Beyond the Lights seems to attribute most of that power to men. That’s problematic. But it also may be its strongest statement.
If You Like it, Watch:
Something New: I’m debating screening this one for you this month. It’s an old favorite of mine with Sanaa Lathan and a young Simon Baker, also written and directed by two women. It tackles issues of race, interracial relationships, work/life balance, and somehow still manages to be funny. Highly recommend.
What Happened, Miss Simone?: Speaking of Nina, this Netflix doc on the Blackbird singer has been on everyone’s mind since it came out last year (and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature). It’s misleading of me to put it on this list, as I haven’t actually watched it yet. But leave it to a mainstream romance to get me feeling Miss Simone’s serious soul – I’m throwing this one on the tv tonight as a follow-up.
Want in on the February Challenge?
Start with the first post – All That Jazz is a Chick Flick.
Check out previous picks, like yesterday’s Practical Magic.
*This post contains affiliate links – I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Of course, I stand by every film, dvd, or book I link you to, and hope you’re cool with this – if not, don’t click!*