Cinematic: The Search For The Greatest Love Of All In 'Beyond The Lights'

During her conversation with the Washington Post, iconic fashion designer Carolina Herrera had some interesting things to say about the fashion industry in terms of how we misinterpret what fashion truly is, making the astute query: how can one be a fashion icon if they aren't wearing clothes?

Herrera doesn't name names, but I can just guess that she is seeing what I'm seeing among the flashing lights of the red carpet to the always visually impaired fashion magazines as fabric barely drapes off the perfectly nipped n' tucked and photoshopped bodies in editorial spreads.

Some could argue that nakedness of the female body is a matter of fashion risk, an "Emperor's New Clothes"-type of blinding pride. We shouldn't be afraid of nakedness, of sexuality, it's all about celebrating the human form, all shapes, and all sizes, from all walks of life. Often we tout it whenever we see our faves flaunting it on the red carpet, and I too have found myself becoming distracted by the dazzle of a beaded sheer body suit (Rihanna's shimmer slaying diamond dress, anyone?), a nice shapely figure, and a wide smile, thinking: if they look great and are feelin' themselves....then who am I to judge?

Taking a bite into the 3rd Wave Tumblr feminism nutrition has left this artificial saccharine taste in my mouth that when a woman 'takes control' of herself, her body, is when she bares it all. That her 'true defined self' is when she is figuratively naked for mass consumption. Since Janet Jackson took a stance on a 1993 Rolling Stone cover and Madonna let it all hang during the infamous Erotica period, this "I have being naked to the world" message has taken a real swell in popular music culture, and while it feels like empowerment --- a woman owning her body on however she chooses to embellish it or not embellish it --- while impacting and power positive in some instances at times it can often be misconstrued to straying into an exploitative narrative that does little to no favors to the woman in the center of it all.

On the surface, Beyond The Lights is a romance story with plot points that feel like a 21st century revival of The Bodyguard, as it follows two individuals from opposite poles of society (a popular R&B starlet and a security guard) whose roles intertwine and interchange as their relationship becomes intimately closer. While not the most perfect of sequences, Beyond the Lights checks off a lot of boxes when it comes to getting to the nucleus of how blatant the hyper-sexualization movement has become in the music world, and how it has in turn sacrificed women and the possession of their identities.

Director and screenwriter, Gina Prince-Blythwoode always has always had a sharp eye towards the treatment of a woman's identity in a venue that is predominately filled with men, as she focused on this quite well with her modern romance classic, Love & Basketball. For Beyond The Lights, she peers into the music world, honing in on hip-hop and R&B culture, that largely, has the male gaze in mind.

Navigating this world is on-the-rise R&B starlet, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose vocal gift is being downplayed for the sake of a risque image, much at the behest of her "momager", Macy Jean (Minnie Driver). In a trap Noni is as the illusion of heavy trap beats and gold chains make it seem like Noni is the 'baddest bitch' around, but once the music levels off and the chains are removed, Noni is really a depressed and lonely young woman who feels that people cannot "see" her for who she truly is. Yet, as Noni's notoriety gains traction, she begins to shed more than just her clothes.

From Noni's chainlink jewelry, symbolic in how she is chained to her purple-hued coif identity, to her not-much-else outfits, racy magazine covers and music videos where she strikes curious poses, her legs wide for invitation  --- some of the scenes and images during these early scenes border on unnerving, as everything is ham-fisted to show the ridiculous puppetry of fame and fortune. While it looks like sexy good fun, and anybody would be the fool not at least fantasize about being in such a position (come on, I can't be the only one who hasn't preened in the mirror when "Worth It" comes on?), still something in the water doesn't compute as things aren't as glamorous or as empowering as they seem from behind Noni's eyes.

To top it, everybody around her is telling her how wonderful she looks, or is using her as stepping stool for their egos. No more so than Noni's rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (Colson "MGK" Baker), who in a cringing scene tries to humiliate her live on stage after Noni severs romantic ties with him. Prior to that, things had been 'all good', but his anger, the pressure of making a spectacle for the headlines, and his need to dominate and posses her every presence on stage comes to a swirling head, where Noni is humiliated and later shamed for not playing by the rules. Slight shades of the push n' pull of Rihanna and Chris Brown's relationship and the deflection drama that played out in the aftermath of the 'The SuperBowl Performance That Shall Not Be Named' come to mind in these moments, especially with the latter, where the woman is saddled with ridicule and "moral" responsibility when the flames of controversy are sparked, while the man gets a +1 for street cred.

While having the notion to be protective of her young daughter among the parasites and paparazzi, Macy Jean is the worst offender who encourages the behavior only if it benefits to the forwarding of her career --- not if it's best for Noni.

As she thrusts her daughter into several uncomfortable positions, Blythwood has the wise notion feign making Macy Jean a "mom-manger" this side of Kris Jenner, as we see flickers of why she makes the decisions she does, and feels that she is doing right by her daughter, taking the means (good and bad) necessary to get her obvious talent out there. We learn that Macy Jean was a young teen mother who had to be both mother and father to a half-Black child. It had always been the two of them against the world, and her trait of protection is present. There is real honest tension between Noni and her mother, as Macy wants to have her daughter strung to her apron strings as she has always had, but Noni is resisting the pull trying to display to her mother that she isn't a little girl anymore and needs to live life for herself. No wire hanger-slinging Mommy Dearest bravada with this mother and daughter dynamic as Driver's delivery is spot-on, side-stepping each caricature.

As much as a suicide plotline is often inserted in a film for sensational, melodramatic purposes, Beyond The Lights doesn't exploit its darkest moment, as it touches on the psychological damages of fame, and how passive people can be about suicide and depression. Everybody around Noni was thinking they were doing what was best for her, but weren't paying attention to her specifically. When Noni and Kaz (Nate Parker) first lay eyes on each other, she whispers, "can you see me", and its an anchor line to the film's theme of identity, as Noni is grappling with finding hers, trying to be several different people for whomever walks into the room. The continual usage of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" has great significance in these scenes, as for Noni it was the first song she learned to sing, but also metaphorically guided her down a path towards personal and artistic freedom. Knowing a little about Simone's life, and how she clutched at her identity no matter what type of boxes she was thrust into makes for a powerful insert.

Even when Noni is at the edge, she's looking down, a realistic bit of doubt flickers in her eyes, this uncertainty is quite realistic. When Noni later confides to Kaz her line, "I feel like I'm suffocating in the middle of the street and no one can see me dying", breaks the heart, but is so powerfully candid that it shows a more emphatic angle to such a thorny topic, unveiling the complexities of what suicide brings to the afflicted and those who are aiding the afflicted.

Kaz swoops into Noni's life not necessarily as the knight in shining armor, but as Noni says, "a pause button". Her self-esteem is on quivering ground, and it takes her literally to the edge, but Kaz is more than just Noni's suicide savior as his presence and his ability to see past her glow of fame, allows her to see what's really going on around her, pushing her forward to make the decision to slowly let her guard down and find her inner peace. Similar in tract to the unveil of Viola Davis' Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder, and Sanaa Lathan's de-weaving in Something New, Noni wipes off her make-up, takes out her lavender tracks (of which I actually loved), and unveils herself naked to Kaz --- this time these changes are for her choosing, and hers alone. As Noni plays a bi-racial woman (as is Mbatha-Raw) whom identifies (I'm assuming) as a Black woman, it was refreshing to see such a dismantling of the 'strong Black woman' archetype in these scenes where Noni's vulnerability is mixed evenly with her strength.

We saw how great Blythewood played up the relationship aspect in Love & Basketball, and with Beyond The Lights she also maps out a seamless and realistic romantic flowering. Noni and Kaz don't have the typical 'meet-cute', but romance sometimes comes out of unique, sometimes harrowing situations. Yes, Nate Parker is pretty stud-ly eye candy in his police uniform (oops, there goes my gaze...), but I quite liked his demeanor to at first not appear invested in Noni as it was just a moral, job obligation to save a life, but how underneath he wholly was invested and even drawn into Noni, the person, not the singer

Also well done is how Kaz's search for identity is also quietly parallel to Noni's plight. They are literal mirror images of each other, as Kaz is also feeling pressure from his father (played by Danny Glover) to upstart a political career. Like Noni's mother, Kaz's father recognizes and nurtures his son's talents, but it too has also pushed him in a cage of self-doubt, and Kaz too felt that he didn't want to disappoint his father, even though he didn't necessarily agree with his father's "game plan" (church support, conservative image, etc.) to political success.

While Beyond The Lights is geared as a romance and does ends up drinking the "happily-ever after bullshit" with its predictable, but satisfying ending, the trace it leaves is so much seeped in truth that you can't help but compare it to the machines that built the entities of today's hot music stars like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Britney Spears, etc., and the machines that are currently sputtering to keep churning out more. Yes, these women are positioned as being headstrong, as women who 'run the world', but are we really buying into that? As glamorous and as empowering as it all appears to be, glitter gets into our eyes, blinding and crystallizing our visions towards the scary underbelly of a woman's expression of self at the hands of others, and its hard not to look away.

Beyond The Lights biggest strength is that is able to balance the fantasy as well as the reality, as for a few brief moments it dismantles the machine of stardom, and attempts to look at each gear that grinds and how a lot those parts need mending, especially when it comes to women and their ownership of self. Beyond The Lights is a love story, but one-ups the narrative as it's more so about the act of learning to love one's self before extending the love to  another, and for that, it is the greatest kind of story to tell.

+ Beyond The Lights is currently streaming on Netflix
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