Sunday, November 16, 2014

'Beyond The Lights' Urges Us To Free The Blackbird Within

Beyond the Lights film poster.
 ".....truth is the only safe ground to stand on."- Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Beyond the Lights begins with a frantic white English mother needing her biracial child's hair done. She is to sing "Blackbird" for a talent show. Aide begrudgingly comes to the rescue. Next day Noni, partly cornrowed with springy curls tamed and properly combed, graces London stage, only brown “tainted” girl amongst contestants. However, as soon as she breaks into Nina Simone, youthful tentativeness disappears, evaporating into an older, worldlier soul. Each harrowing note is belted in wisdom and strength-- components that drove Simone's sorrow tipped ballad. Noni the child has grown up before teary-eyed, applauding listeners affected by bestowed gift.

However, fiercely delivered tenacity isn't enough to win.

Instead of telling Noni to take loss with dignity and grace, Mama Macy Jean abruptly pulls Noni offstage and forces first trophy to be trashed. A cruel reminder that runner ups are never remembered, never worth celebrating.

Young Noni (India Jean-Jacques) wows the crowd bellowing out, "Why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly?"
Years later, overtly graphic images flash subliminal messages. Noni is a dehumanized vessel, a fabricated industry product. Nowadays most pop music lacks profound substance. Quick, easily manufactured garbage is instantly popularized. The now is imperative-- fifteen minutes of fame, the speediness of existential high wrapped in bling and sexual voyeurism. Wearing more weave and makeup than clothing, Noni the voided robot, sings lifeless songs over loud, hyper synthesized beats. Oceanic pretend, more vast and abyssal than anything she's ever swam in, drowns out her real voice, her real soul. Popping and twerking like a stripper dancer, images of T&A displayed like twenty-first century Sarah Barrtman, Noni is finally victorious-- what Macy Jean always craved. It's an interesting contrast against earlier little girl showcasing vocal tenure, breathing into Simone's lyrical prowess, echoing desires of being free from cage. 

Thanks to Macy Jean's insatiable hunger for winning, Noni is still trapped and sees only one way out.

Mama Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) says less is more for her daughter Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Kaz, the guard taking over someone's shift, rescues befallen tragedy.
When he saves her from almost falling, he holds her. In this intense moment, everything changes. Connection starts to grow. World around them becomes silently unnecessary. Nothing matters more than this profound destiny in the hotel suite. She is seeing him seeing her. The clutch is both sedimentary and powerful. Eyes meeting and greeting each other, offering comfort and balance. There is truth nestled here-- a real unexpected truth. Macy Jean drags Noni away, but Kaz is left rooted in same spot, stunted in same position. Noni's eyes stays transfixed to where he is located, searching and needing him still. 

Unexpected connection forms between Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker). It's the longest eye contact Noni herself has had with anyone in the film.
Kaz is the genuine good guy. Not a thug. Not a gun toting drug dealer. He is the American anti-black male perception. However, like Noni, he is a blackbird too. Following his father's hierarchy-- science whiz, police officer, politician, Kaz seems to desire stretching out his wings. His home is an intellectual landmine of books and post it note quotes. Off the job he wears empowering t-shirts with civil rights leaders like Malcolm X. At times, he speaks in the quotes inspiring him. 

His immaculate world is turned asunder, much to his father's dissatisfaction, when saving Noni grants "fifteen minutes."
"What do you see?" Noni asks.
"Nothing," Kaz replies.
He doesn't mean “nothing” in a hurtful way. He sees a lost woman, floating without lifesaver. 
Kaz and Noni both want him to be that lifesaver.
Honest Kaz doesn't like to lie, but for Noni he must.
We started on a lie so it could never be perfect.
Oh but the remarkable rendering of that "perfection."

The balcony "incident" is major headline news and not in a good way. Noni has an immediate press conference and coerces Kaz to falsify events. Noni's label is outraged and threatens not release impending album. They are to sell sex. Not suicide. Blind Macy Jean sugar coats visceral reality, saying "cry for attention" will never happen again. Mental illness is a sensitive issue and should be taken into utmost consideration, especially when desire to inflict self harm comes to light. In lethal combination of a mother's dismissive behavior and a record exec's blatant disrespect, how can Noni's self esteem rise any higher when it dwindled lower than below balcony? Kaz, however, sees a woman in need. The kind of need that a man on a white horse cannot give her. She starts to lean on him, drawn into playing "victim," coming to his job, stealing him away. Their connection is undeniable. They start seeing beyond the seeing in each other, opening imprisoned doors, shamelessly indulging. Noni shows him her secret lyrics box-- illustrious prose deeper than what she sexily spews onstage. Kaz shows her his special place, watching planes fly.ahead. He fears putting his life "in someone else's hands" and she has never steered her own. Under heart of everything, he knows that she is not a narcissistic, self absorbed pop tart wannabe. He is merely waiting on her to acknowledge it too.

After horrible events escalate, reaching horrific climax, Noni and Kaz take a much needed getaway. In Mexico, they are free to lose themselves in this private haven, a sweet endearing family unit complete with dog. Passionate discoveries lead to erotic interplay, as camera turns camaraderie into lustful gratification. Although earlier love scene is depicted in a humorous mile high club fashion, this private session draws on just how deep connection has become-- confessional euphoric commitment. Chemistry is smoldering, almost overwhelming. Touching is both titillating and seductive. Urban version of Spiderman's infamous upside down French kissing offers slow, deliberate suggestion-- artfully maneuvered craftsmanship. We are taught anatomy of eye sex, of touching, of kissing. Longing and need painted in genuine strokes of rapturous harmony. The scene is fascinating. It's rare viewing minorities become explicitly sensual and desirous with each other onscreen. Brown skin on brown skin create fervid matrimony against white inside mahogany room, compositions of love and sensuality evoke candid intimacy.

Beyond the Lights is a simply must see for all its poignant metaphors and compelling similes. The soundtrack is excellent from Yuna (one of my favorite artists) to Cynthia Erivo and beyond-- an eclectic symphony of independent R&B and hip hip musicians. Director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Blythewood's masterful ability to record moments astound and stimulate sometimes simultaneously. She wields bravery with both pen and camera lens, taking strands of African DNA to United States and England. Making fresh faced virgins plunder into uncharted travel.

The cast is brilliant.

Gugu Raw-Mbatha shines again. First in Belle, now in a modern contemporary piece, she showcases phenomenal depth, diving inside Noni's exterior to viscerally connect necessary puzzle pieces. Each layer is peeled. An invisible knife slices Noni, exposing old wounds and fragile scars. She is unveiled to not just Kaz, but herself. She cuts away contact, the weave, the loud, emotionless beats, and finally her mother-- the barriers of which kept her from being genuine, the one person who should have never misguided her. That broken down acapella scene in Mexico illustrates raw vocalization and riveting integrity. Mbatha-Raw is flawless in three dimensional art form, forcing viewers to use eyes to witness facial language and ears to listen to emotional story. Bared naked gem effectively expresses vulnerable girl's desperation to seek validation in exasperating adulthood. One cannot help crying over sheer genius. We are witnesses to fatherless blackbird thirsting for elixirs to heal loneliness and pain.

Nate Parker is definitely capable of playing male lead. I first saw him in Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters and found him to be one of the film's strongest components. His character Kaz is both protective-- standing up for women when no one else would and compassionate-- using ears to listen and comprehend. From the very beginning, he knows that Noni needs help. No one in her corner is willing to see or understand. Parker embodies power and charisma, filling screen with enchanting beauty and sincerest conviction. Yes, he is a gracious model to fetch feminine gaze, but his portrayal solidifies place as an actor. He is quite articulate and sympathetic-- balancing between soft and hard, this fluid embodiment supposedly not seen to be masculine. Let's hope Hollywood follows Washington's and Prince-Blythewood's wise advice and give Parker prestigious notoriety. This young man is amazing.

Minnie Driver's Macy Jean and Danny Glover's Captain Nicol also provide pivotal support. Their respective characters-- both fiery, intense, hot headed pushy parents pinning their hopes to offspring, are the catalysts to protagonists. India Jean-Jacques is impressive. This talented singer/actress is bound to go many intriguing places when her career takes off.

In Jezebel, Prince-Blythewood explains breaking romance film genre tradition
It was very important for me that this film was not just about a man saving her. It was about a woman saving herself. You can't love unless you love yourself, and that was really an important theme that I wanted to put out there. This is a woman who's literally on the edge and wanted to let go. She has to climb back from that, both physically and emotionally and discover in herself what's worth saving. Yes, Kaz was there to let her know there was something worth saving, but she had to ultimately find out what that was in herself....
The film is really about two people saving each other.
Noni and Kaz + dog are the centers of each other's universe, addictive drugs in themselves.
Prince-Blythewood is a magician-- capturing hypnotizing scenes difficult to look away from. She is both soft and tender like a woman's gentle caress and brave and fiery like a lioness tearing apart prey. She shows no mercy. Evocative shot of Noni's tears on the balcony, tears dripping down her cheeks, clear bubbling snot escaping nostrils was beautifully rendered, moving photography well done. Brutal domestic abuse depictions whether it be from a victim refusing Kaz's help or Noni being violently attacked in front of cheering millions. Noni's mortifying embarrassment is publicly chastised. Instead of focusing blame on what is perceived to be rape enactment, by ex-boyfriend rapper all blame shifts to Noni-- giving credence to our victim shaming culture. Sadly enough that particular stage scene is similar to Macy Jean snatching Noni off the stage earlier. There are further elaborate twists and turns. Scenes are terrifying, gritty, affectionate, and arresting.

At last, the Noni and Kaz "lie" turns into validated truth.

The end is a wonderful nod towards Noni's humble roots both figuratively and mentally. Noni's adult natural coiled hair is styled same as ten-year-old self by same kind savior. This symbolizes rebirth, a new path Noni controls. Closing vocal narrative reenforces Simone's guttural melody. However, twist is pure Noni. The song is about her journey, but includes Kaz too. They have both overcome fears, flown free from parental shadows. Maya Angelou said she knew why the caged bird sings. Here bellows answer in haunting powerful range. Mama Jean, Noni's first fan, is left listening to beginnings of her little girl, of the daughter she sold out on a meaningless device. Meanwhile, audience is left with real honesty, the stoic truth of a young woman just wanting to be heard and loved. 

Oh dearest Nina Simone, blackbirds are no longer lonely or crying pained tears. Prince-Blythewood has ensured them a joined joyous flight to infinite love and sincerest happiness.

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