“I get to stand here on behalf of people who have proven that it’s possible to start over…I’ve talked to people in the moment they make the decision to live. Now they have to make that decision every day.”
– Jamie Tworkowski founder of To Write Love on Her Arms
When “Beyond the Lights,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s behind-the-flashbulbs look at the music industry, opens we meet a young, fresh-faced Noni. She is impossibly adorable but brings a river of sweet, simple emotion to her talent show stage. She pulls you in. How did this young Noni attach her life to Nina Simone’s haunting “Blackbird”? At this point maybe it’s a representation of the life her mother has led, a vision for the life her mother is protecting her from, but ultimately pushes her towards.
In, perhaps, the most informative scene in the movie our eyes travel through a jump cut from sweet, emotional, young Noni quickly to a barely clothed, dark make-up wearing, Rhianna-esque version of adult Noni. The shock of the jump is arresting. Our sweet Noni is now grinding on a camera. Very quickly the film has you asking how much of this image is Noni, how much of it does Noni want?
Part of the beauty of “Beyond the Lights” is that the characters are complex. Noni is this enigma caught in a battle to let her voice be heard from under the stifling visage that has been created for her. Kaz is also fighting to find his own voice apart from the one his father thinks he should have. He’s educated, attractive, and obviously a restorer, a hero. Even Noni’s mother is a jumbled mess of striving to provide and exploiting for gain.
There are no easy answers in the film. In fact, it creates more questions. When Noni starts to turn it all around and be herself, it is still difficult to be happy for her because I’m not sure her actual voice will sell. There is the conundrum “Beyond the Lights” creates. It’s actually the conundrum most of our popular media creates. It’s a conundrum that has formed some of the biggest, most controversial acts that we have. It’s what turns Hannah into Miley.
So does it matter that Noni finds her voice if simultaneously she stops being relevant? Will continuing to feed into the hip-hop machine drive her to more and more self-destructive behavior? Then what good would her voice be? A question I’m sure many of us ask on our way to discovering any measure of positive self-esteem, but particularly important as a woman in a landscape that consistently puts her thoughts and opinions on the back burner.
Does anyone really want Noni because of who she is and not because of the fantasy her image creates? Many of her fans in the film identified her by the male rapper she was dating. Say she moves on to a more real love, but it’s with a man who is destined for politics like Kaz. Does she stop being identified by the man in her life then? Can you start to see the rock and the hard place she finds herself between? If Noni didn’t fully relate to “Blackbird” by the beginning of the film, she definitely does by the end.
“So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly. You ain’t got no one to hold you, you ain’t got no one to care. If you’d only understand, dear, nobody wants you anywhere. So why you wanna fly Blackbird, you ain’t ever gonna fly.”
“Beyond the Lights” may be a call to form healthy, affirmative community in your life. Do you have people that know you beyond your snapchats and tweets? Do you have people that can affirm the person God created you to be, that can build you up even if it involves brutal honesty? This film is a stunning portrayal of the state of pop culture, but also the struggle it can be to find out who you are and from what platform your voice should ring. This week at IUP several students were asking these questions of value and what power their voice holds. Four organizations got together and held a poetry event called, “Black Lives Matter.” I will share with you a performance from that night of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.”
Don’t forget, if you’d like to rent this movie here is a gift card to do that with (6095412881883568 pin 61478411).