Undoing: Negotiating Fame and Self-Care In Gina Prince-Blythewood's BEYOND THE LIGHTS
When Beyond the Lights was released in 2014, it opened a lot of conversations about the marketing of films with black actors and the capacity of a film in the romance genre to deal with serious themes. Helmed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who is still hailed for Love & Basketball (2000), it excels as a romance drama, but also makes deft observations concerning the sexualization of women in the music industry. Prince-Bythewood's masterly writing also addresses a lot of ideas that have just come into the fore about self-care, mental health, and healthy relationships. Her perspective is interesting, because it’s at odds with the mainstream line of thinking that causes of pain are ideally destroyed. The narrative expresses that Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) doesn’t need to destroy her career or her relationship with her mother (Minnie Driver) in order to resolve her pain, but rather that she can heal by undoing the sections that are hurting her.
Beyond the Lights introduces Noni Jean as a little girl (India Jean-Jacques) in the midst of a formative childhood experience. It’s nighttime and her mother Macy is tensely driving around London in a dirty hatchback looking for an open hair salon. Noni has her first singing competition the next day and her mother is desperate for someone to do her daughter’s hair. It’s a miracle when Macy finds a Jamaican hairdresser (Deidrie Henry) to show her how to style Noni’s hair. This search is both a demonstration of a mother’s love and a more ominous sign of how Macy will be responsible for crafting her daughter’s body and image as her career progresses. The day of the talent competition, Noni can barely look up from the floor; she’s painfully shy. She almost appears to be ill at ease in her own body. The event concludes with Macy storming out during the awards ceremony and instructing her daughter to destroy the award she’s won.
The film reintroduces an adult Noni through music videos. The first shots consist of close ups of body parts: her arm and down her cleavage. The first full shot of her face is from crotch level. In addition to the constructed setting of the music video, the autotune of Noni’s voice connotes artificiality. Now with a burgeoning music career, we can see that Noni’s body is not really her own. In Noni’s words, “A new nose, a new body and some Indian chick's hair. [Like] a bloody product!” A series of shots show that she’s physically surrounded by people, most of them larger than her, before she’s led down a hallway to go onstage at the Billboard Music Awards. Multiple people touch her body and face, trying to attain last minute perfection. The final person to groom her before she takes the stage is of course her mother, signaling that she is the final authority in all aspects of Noni’s appearance and life.
We see just a few glimpses of Noni’s life, but it is apparent that every aspect of her career and appearance is constructed and that she’s enmeshed with a mother who’s poured every fiber of her being into making Noni a success. Noni does not have emotional or physical freedom, even down to what she eats. In one scene, her mother grabs foods right off her plate and throws it away in a napkin. In another scene, she shares with her love interest that she has to sneak away to eat fried chicken. This alienation from herself has made Noni suicidal and she tries to destroy her body as an expression of emotional pain, though we see in her later press conference that Noni’s mastered a performance of breezy sexuality even when unscripted.
Because Beyond the Lights is a romance movie, the dramatic arc that spurs the rest of Noni’s healing and growth comes in the form of her discovering an authentic sexual self with Kaz (Nate Parker). She desires to feel “seen” as something beyond an attractive body and Kaz, as the romance genre requires, just happens to be in the right place at the right time to “see” her when she requires it most desperately and literally saves her life. In one of their earlier conversations, Kaz recites one of his favorite quotes: “Truth is the only firm ground upon which to stand,” and Noni responds by asking whether he swallowed a fortune cookie. It’s a clever one-liner, and indicative of being good with words. She specifically shares with him that she’d like to write some of her own songs, but that she doesn’t feel anyone cares what she has to say. As they spend more time together, Noni shares her more of her interiority with her love interest and Kaz’s honesty draws more of it out of her. Their compatibility leads her to make changes.
This is where we see start to see the “undoing” that the film seems to advocate. In order to fully pursue a relationship with Kaz, Noni ends her PR relationship with Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly), who takes the breakup fairly well. In their later performance (“Private Property”), as an effort to preserve some bodily integrity, Noni refuses to strip down on stage. Though Noni’s reasons for doing so are completely sympathetic, this represents a more complete shattering of their personal and professional relationship. It’s unclear whether Kid Culprit is having a sincere reaction or if he’s trying to save face with the audience by portraying machismo, but he tries to humiliate her by forcing her face into his crotch. Prince-Bythewood seems to be making an implicit criticism of the music industry that Noni and Kid Culprit’s careers lean so heavily on these sexualized and somewhat racialized performances, but she keeps the primary focus on the personal relationships between Noni, Kaz and Kid Culprit.
Much has been made of black women’s relationships with our hair, whether reasonably or unreasonably, but Prince-Bythewood, in Beyond the Lights, chooses to include a scene in which Noni cuts the purple weave out of her hair using a pocketknife. It makes for a natural follow-up from the film’s first scene and is a barometer for how Noni’s relationship with her body changes. It’s the most salient visual representation of the relational changes is making. The use of a pocketknife firstly recalls the self-harming tendencies that Noni has been struggling with, but Noni does not use the knife to hurt herself. She doesn’t even take a knife to her extensions to destroy them, but rather undoes them gently and puts them in a pile. It symbolizes the restoration of a healthy relationship with her body and an emerging ability to articulate what’s in her mind. While the purple hair connoted a marketable lightheartedness, it did not reflect what Noni was feeling or experiencing. It's not destruction, but modification, and her natural hair later becomes a point of reconnection with Felicia (the hairdresser from the first scene) when she returns to London.
The most significant changes Noni winds up needing to make are with her label and with her mother, which have shaped her life most significantly. A different writer might have crafted a narrative that inferred Noni had to sacrifice her career in its entirety in order to find happiness or regain bodily autonomy, but Prince-Bythewood does not present this as the most ideal option. With help from her mother, Noni manages to integrate more of her genuine self and interiority into her work and public image through the negotiation process. After this negotiation process, Noni seems to believe that her relationship with her mother has somehow been altered, but it remains the same. Her mother might have heard her concerns, but did not address them meaningfully. Noni expresses frustration with this in a confrontation, “Your word was gospel!” before firing her mother and leaving. When Noni is preparing for her concert in London, Felicia shares gently that Macy did not appear to be a woman who was a monster, but instead was dedicated to doing whatever would make her child’s life better. Noni trims away the mom-as-manager relationship, but Prince-Bythewood sees it fit to show us a brief scene of her mother listening to her daughter’s new iteration of “Blackbird,” suggesting there’s still a salvageable and positive facet to the relationship.
For the sake of balance, Prince-Bythewood includes other instances of conflict, between Kaz and Noni while they’re in Mexico and between Kaz and his father (Kaz is a kind of mirror of Noni’s experiences, also having a life steered by one of his parents). Ultimately Kaz and Noni find happiness together, and Kaz does not end the relationship with his father (Danny Glover) but begins to exercise more agency in his life, running his campaign in a way that feels more authentic for him. Interestingly, Beyond the Lights is a movie that addresses a relationship with the public, but the primary relationships that Noni needs to put work into rebuilding are not directly with the public, but rather with herself with her fellow musician, with her label, with her mother and with herself. She has to gradually reshape her professional, sexual, and familial relationships, the ones beyond the lights before she can address the public and find a way to be happy in her success.