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Review: Lena Waithe’s ‘Beauty’ Film Gives Us Black Stardom In the 80s

Review: Lena Waithe’s ‘Beauty’ Film Gives Us Black Stardom In the 80s

Just like, that, Lena Waithe gives us the summer magic we so desperately need. This actor, producer, and screenwriter does not disappoint with her latest film, Beauty, directed by Andrew Dosunmu.

Set in the 1980s, young singer Beauty, performed by Gracie Marie Bradley, is offered a lucrative record contract. She’s on the verge of a promising career but finds herself in the middle of strict parents, industry pressures, and her love for her girlfriend. It’s a story of love, identity, and family demands.

A most-fitting quote by Sarah Vaughn opens the film: “When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder, and I don’t even notice.”

This film focuses on Beauty. We get to ride with her on a journey from living with her family in New Jersey to her rise to fame. Her mother, played brilliantly by Niecy Nash, has taught Beauty everything she knows and reminds her of it every chance she gets. She never got the opportunity to have the kind of career that Beauty is offered. She questions if her daughter is even ready for the opportunity. Meanwhile, Giancarlo Esposito plays Beauty’s father and appears to be her champion.

“Do you know what they do to stars? They build you up just so they can take you down,” Nash warns Beauty. Almost too confidently, Beauty refutes, “Can’t nobody tear me down, Mommy.”

Waithe and Dosunmu are intentional about showing the darkness of fame, including from your own backyard. The sacrifices one must make and the commodification of Black artists from all sides.

Beauty’s parents are toxic. They smoke, drink, cuss at each other, and threaten each other in the most jaw-dropping way. They show no love or respect. Instead, their relationships are transactional. Beauty thinks she is a daddy’s girl, and, early on, she attempts to weaponize that against her mother. Later, she discovers that daddy is an opportunist, just like the industry.

We never hear Beauty sing throughout the entire film. But that is the whole point. We don’t need to hear her sing to know that she can; each person confirms that. Her singing is not the pinnacle of the film. Not hearing her sing is symbolic of her struggle to have an identity.

There is a scene when Beauty is having her photo taken as her family watches on. She sits there in the physical sense, but almost appears to have an out-of-body experience as music echoes in the background. At that moment, she realizes that her life is being orchestrated by other people. She actually doesn’t have a choice.

Beauty is enamored by the voices of Sarah Vaughn, LaShun Pace, and Donna Summer. Yet, her soul is changed over the song Over the Rainbow. When she is told by the industry executive, played by Sharon Stone, that she will sing this song on television, she watches two tapes to prepare for the moment. While listening to Judy Garland’s version, Beauty appears to be overcome by sadness, defeated. Yet, when she listens to Patti Labelle’s rendition of the classic song, her entire face beams, and she is visibly changed.

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Stone’s character represents the white gaze and how it traps Black people in white imaginations. It is the eyes of this white record executive who sees Beauty as only a commodity — confirming so by telling her that she will have to wear a mask. She tells the choreographer who’s trying to teach Beauty how to dance that she’s “never met a Black person who couldn’t dance.”

I love the fact that Beauty is a dark-skinned girl. We know that representation matters, and it is significant in this film. Stone’s character makes a comment about how beautiful her complexion is — almost fetishizing it.

The relationship between Beauty and her girlfriend Jasmine (played by Aleyse Shannon) is no less than beautiful. Nothing between them is hot and heavy — just beautiful. The love and care for one another — the way they look at each other; the way they touch. It is such a sweet representation between them. There are so few romantic dramas centering on Black characters and even fewer with queer characters, that it’s exciting this project even exists.

What’s just as important as what we see in the film, is what we have to infer on our own — from the exchange between Beauty’s mother and the young pastor at church to the comment Jasmine makes to Beauty’s father that suggests his philandering. Beauty’s flirtation with the neighbor, played by Joey Bada$$, is interesting as if she believes it’s what she is supposed to do with men. In these moments, we see Beauty drift into who she may really be deep down inside.

By the end, we’re left with Beauty about to take the stage — and we’re rooting for her. We are invested in her passion and determination to succeed. It’s the “I really hope she makes it,” feeling but also having a stronger sense that she will be overtaken by the pressures that be and feeling sad about that.

We are reminded of two things for sure: Not everyone has your best interests at heart, even those closest to you. If you don’t stand in your truth, others will create it for you.

Beauty is available on Netflix, June 29, 2022.

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