I recently had the opportunity to finally watch Beyond the Lights (Thanks Netflix!). I was excited to watch another film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from Belle) and also Minnie Driver (who rocks), and by a female writer-director (Gina Prince-Bythewood), but I sadly missed it in theatres.
In brief: Beyond the Lights follows the struggles of a young pop star, Noni, on the verge of superstardom. The film opens as she is heading towards her chance at making it big, but as just one young woman against the “intimate psychic violence of racism and sexism” (as A.O. Scott describes it so well) that the music industry inflicts upon her, Noni finds herself standing on a balcony considering suicide. It is only through the intervention of a young police officer that Noni decides to try to live.
The film at its simplest is a love story between Noni and Kaz (the police officer)— and this story is frequently rather contrived and fantastical. A.O. Scott describes it as silly in an affectionate way, but also argues that the fantasy of Noni and Kaz’s relationship is part of the central project and purpose of the film. (Read his review for more.) However, it is important to note that while Kaz sparks Noni’s move towards freedom and wholeness, as Minnie Driver explains in an interview: “Kaz saves her physically, but Noni saves herself.”
Putting the romantic storyline aside what I found most moving, terrifying, powerful about the film was it’s perspective on the music industry (the film arguably focuses more on the hip-hop/R&B industry in which Noni seems to operate, but I’m sure the criticism can apply to other genres as well). First, the film forces us to witness the overpowering, in-your-face objectification that female artists are subjected to through the music videos Noni has recently released and the photoshoots she endures. By contrasting this with the first impression we get of Noni (a talented little girl, sensitive, vulnerable and a beautiful soul with a moving voice, who loves singing and wants to make her mother proud) we get to really understand just how reductive, humiliating, sad, and violent these conditions are. These forces are so powerful in their obliteration of the artist’s self and disrespectful of their talents, it is abundantly clear how Noni is so easily chewed up and destroyed by the industry that at the same time it promises to give her everything, strips her of any dignity, safety, or support.
The most powerful moment of the film for me brings this all to a head, and does something further. My jaw literally dropped in horror at both how terrible this scene was and yet how completely realistic and plausible it seemed.
After her suicide attempt and her blossoming romance with Kaz, Noni attempts to turn her life around, initially without rocking the boat too much. (Kaz remains skeptical that this will lead her to healing, but he is just one voice drowned out by many demanding managers and fans.) She has played off her near-fall from her hotel balcony as a drunken mishap and strives to make small changes in her life— flouting her overbooked schedule, bringing Kaz with her as a support to some of her events (despite the misgivings of others), and breaking it off with her label-assigned sort-of boyfriend— a rapper with whom she has sex and with whom she has just collaborated on hit song. Noni heads off to the internationally-televised BET Awards where she will perform this song with her ex/collaborator, and this performance is expected to be her big break into superstardom (and will obliterate the tabloid gossip about her mental instability).
As we watch her getting into her costume, and listen to a dresser explaining to her how the white trench coat she wears (over nothing but lingerie) will fall off when the backup dancers pull on it in a certain way, we know that Noni is going to assert her independence. We know she’s going to keep that coat on.
What we don’t predict (or at least I didn’t) is how aggressively this one act of self-assertion, of autonomy, of self-preservation and dignity will be combated. As the song/dance continues we see Noni shrug off a few cues to disrobe as the dancers and then her co-star attempt to remove the white trench coat she wears. As I watched this, I began to observe just how attractive and sexy she is with the coat on; I realize just how unnecessary, excessive even, it is that she remove the coat. I think naively, this song will go over just fine without her getting naked for her singing partner, who films her on a camera that is hooked up to screens as part of the act.
However, as we see Noni refuse and refuse to remove her clothes as expected, refuse to be reduced and commodified, we see her singing partner get more and more aggressive. This begins as the sexy-play that is part of the performance, but quickly escalates into brutality. Kid Culprit (the rapper) throws Noni against a bed more and more forcefully, until at the end of the song we watch him push her face into his crotch, tear her clothes off, and throw her to the floor— denouncing her as his sloppy seconds.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened to Noni, and yet I could. This is exactly what happens to women who are expected to be submissive, sexual commodities when they attempt to challenge that image of themselves. Denial of someone’s humanity quickly escalates into violence against them. What was shocking is that while we see the first half of that equation over and over and over again in popular culture (Noni’s sexy, typical, yet NSFW music videos we were forced to watch earlier in the movie), the music/entertainment industry is not so quick to follow through on the result of the equation— the misery and violence. This movie shows the whole equation, and that is precisely what made this scene so powerful and the movie’s overall critique of the music industry so revolutionary.
Thankfully, there is hope. Noni does save herself, and the film allows her story to offer an alternative or at least an antidote to the poisonous, objectifying racism and sexism that runs so rampant in the entertainment-music industry. To return to Minnie Driver’s interview, the film offers another kind of music scene that provides space for women— and women of color in particular, who suffer the most brutally in the commodification process often times— as whole people and beautiful artists.
In her final song of the movie, Noni rewrites the song that has haunted her throughout her whole life. She turns the blackbird into a phoenix:
I’m free at last, free from you—
free from the past.
Freedom at last.
What is life, other than a cage to me?