Beyond The Lights, Beyond The Urban Narrative: When Marketing Gets In The Way of Story
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Beyond The Lights, Beyond The Urban Narrative: When Marketing Gets In The Way of Story

nullHow do you

market a love story? Seems likes a simple question, especially for studios and distributors

who dole out large sums of money to make sure the public goes to see a film.

But, what happens when marketing actually works against the depth and texture

of a film, making it appear to be something it’s not?

I loved "Beyond The Lights" so much, I saw it

three times, each time with a new eye. I was hurt when I heard the news that it

didn’t do well at the box office, not only because it’s a smart and impressive film,

but because we don’t see a lot of love stories directed by black women, that

feature people of color in this way.

However, what

became apparent to me and many people I’d talked to, was that its marketing campaign failed to

capture the nuance of the story and its characters. So, by trying to sell it as

an urban love story about fame, fortune, and attractive people, the essence of

the story was somehow lost on many before they even got to see it.

This was not a

story about getting “turnt up,” about having a “bae,” or about any of the

surface elements of pop culture that the film’s Facebook page regularly posts. It’s a

story that cleverly cuts into what we know as pop culture persona, cuts into

the hyper-sexualization of female entertainers- of fake butts, stripper poles

in music videos, glossy skin, and weaves and reveals a person suffering, like

we all are suffering. But it does this while encouraging us to understand and

take part in the illusion that main character Noni inhabits, to indulge while we also think

and critique, like good music and art often do. It doesn’t invite us to judge,

but rather to relate. 

We now have pop

icons like Beyonce stepping out of the one-dimensional realm of perfection,

embracing ideas of feminism, protest, and self-love so why didn’t the film’s distributors

integrate her into the marketing campaign, especially since she has a song

featured in the movie (“Drunk In Love”), and another that directly relates to

the subject matter in the film, called “Pretty Hurts.” Could the film have

gained some much-needed traction if Beyonce, or even Rihanna were included in a

video endorsement? I think so. 

This is also a

story that presents a biracial actress (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) playing a biracial

character, and this is important and needed. As much as we abide by the belief

that one drop of black blood makes you black, there are still unique

experiences that many biracial people face in this country, and in the world,

as evidenced in a scene where Noni’s desperate white mother (played powerfully

by Minnie Driver) takes her to a black woman’s hair salon at night, pleading

for the woman to do her young child’s thick hair. This is a real thing.

During

a Q&A for the film, Director Gina Prince-Bythewood also spoke about the

difficulties of being adopted- specifically growing up in a white family, her

struggles for acceptance and self-love, and her eventual reunion with her white

birth mother, who faced racism within her own family if she would’ve kept

Bythewood. These are all very personal, honest threads that were integrated into this narrative. Mbatha-Raw and Driver are allowed to speak in their

British accents and be flawed, complex characters who aren’t defined by the tropes

of what black characters or white characters, should be.

Pushing against

the ready-made labels of “black film,” or “urban film,” allows the film to

operate on different aspects of the human experience, which its marketing campaign

failed to convey. There are so many biracial people who would appreciate a

representation of a textured biracial character. They are a part of the film’s

audience. There are so many parents raising teenagers obsessed with pop singers

and pop culture who would’ve loved to watch this film with their teens, and

even music critics, musicians, and entertainers- male and female- who this film

speaks to.

As I said in a

previous review, the premise alone is not entirely original- a pop star tries

to commit suicide and is then saved by a police officer whom she falls in love

with. On paper, it’s something that could be an easy, one-off "Lifetime" film,

but in the assured grasp of Bythewood, it becomes something more. A good love

story has the ability to make us believe and root for outcomes that we never

would. The chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker felt very lived-in,

especially in a montage of scenes where we just see them laying together in a

bed over a series of days in Mexico. It captures a feeling of escape and a

certain blissful intoxication you have with someone you love.

Recently, Bythewood

issued an urgent open letter, impelling people to go see the film. While

touched by the letter, I was also angry that a director of this caliber had to

do this. When was the last time we saw a white, male filmmaker pleading for

people to go see their film? I often hear complaints within communities of

color that there aren’t many quality films to see that don’t include

stereotypes. Well, here’s one, and there’s plenty more. While the marketing

didn’t match the depth of the film, that same issue doesn’t seem to stop many

from seeing The Hunger Games, Dumb and Dumber Too, or the next Blockbuster that

comes out. Films made by black filmmakers often face the difficult task of

crushing impossible barriers and expectations that are not placed on white

films. The same chance we take on seeing a bad blockbuster is the same chance

we should take on seeing a film that reflects beautifully complex

representations of ourselves.

Go see it in

theaters before it’s gone.

Nijla Mu’min is

a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She recently won the Grand Jury

Prize for Best Screenplay at the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival, for her love

story Noor.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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