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

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

How 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.

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