By the time I finish writing this essay, there’s a good chance that another woman will come forward and accuse Bill Cosby of rape, or sexual assault. Meanwhile, as I’m writing this essay, countless individuals and organizations are still taking to the streets to spread the message that Black Lives Matter, and to demand an American justice system that reflects this. “Beyond the Lights” is an incredible film (which was, unfortunately, not marketed in a way that reflected its nuances), partly because it fits into both conversations by taking on sexual assault (and the perception of it), along with race politics. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has deftly created a love story that addresses the unique ways in which both issues play out in the entertainment industry.”
There are many unforgettable moments in “Beyond the Lights,” as any fan of the film will tell you. There’s the “Drunk in Love” airplane scene, the kitchen confrontation between mother (Macy Jean, played by Minnie Driver) and daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni). And of course, there are all of the amazing scenes set in Mexico—especially the ones where we start to see Noni transform, beginning with her hair. But there’s one powerful scene that many of us forgot about, almost as soon as we left the theatre, and it’s an important piece to any conversation about the film’s themes.
In addition to being exploited by her label, and her own mother, the protagonist of “Beyond the Lights” is a victim of sexual assault. Audiences and critics have been almost (or entirely) immune to the scene (one critic did note that she was “practically” assaulted, and others have made similar comments), because it was carefully crafted to play like a prototypical rap performance. Noni is on stage with her ex-boyfriend, rapper Kid Culprit (played by MGK), and when she refuses to take off the trench coat covering up her sexy, barely-there ensemble, Culprit attempts to physically force the coat off. He also grabs her, and throws her on the bed on stage, aggressively simulating sex with her there, and again while standing up, as he pretends to receive oral sex from her. All this, in front of a live audience in the movie, and the imagined audience at home.
Perhaps more interesting than the scene itself has been our reaction (or lack thereof) to it—the fact that we almost shrug it off, by the time the film is over. It’s a scary event that occurs, then passes, and we eventually forget about it. Part of this is a result of the film’s own narrative (where the focus is on Noni’s suicide attempt, and rehabilitation, partly through her romantic relationship with Nate Parker’s Kaz), but much of it is a result of our tendency to put these kinds of events out of our minds, especially if they don’t fit in with our traditional ideas of sexual assault.
If this was a scene that played out in real life, we’d all likely agree that MGK’s character was out of line, and disrespectful. We’d say he went too far when he put Noni on her knees, grabbed her by the neck, and shoved her face into his groin. But because he was fully clothed, many of us might have difficulty classifying it as sexual assault, even though these acts fit the criminal definition of the term.
It’s also interesting to consider the fact that a pop star like the kind Noni is portraying would have an impossible time proving that she’d been sexually assaulted by someone with whom she’d been in a relationship—especially someone she’d performed raunchy routines with in the past. Imagine Nicki Minaj accusing Drake of such a thing, post-“Anaconda” video. How many of us would find this ridiculous, or at least shrug it off? How many self-proclaimed feminists would, perhaps initially, cast a side-eye on such an accusation? Remember all those years ago when Foxy Brown was furious with Vibe magazine for using those incredibly provocative pictures—pictures she posed for? I was much younger then, but I can admit to a very heavy eye roll on my part. Women like Foxy, or Nicki, or the fictional Noni are not permitted to accuse others of sexual exploitation, because they’ve already been labeled as the types of artists who exploit themselves. But such thinking is incredibly dangerous, for it implies that a sexual assault victim fits into a certain category, or behaves in a certain way.
Although “Beyond the Lights” does not focus heavily on Noni’s assault, one of the dominant messages of the film is that we should all be more critical of an industry where most of our female pop stars must sell sex (or feel like they must), if they are to achieve success. This is especially true—and true for different reasons—for our black female pop and hip-hop acts. And while I personally don’t take issue with aggressive sex, or sexually explicit performances and videos, it is interesting to note that Noni’s assault is initially difficult to read, because the audience (the one in the scene, and those of us watching the scene) is accustomed, even desensitized, to performances where the objectification of the female performer is the central focus. One could argue that, often times, even the music is secondary to this. That is to say, the sexualized performances often have a greater effect and impact than the actual song.
Such desensitization is the reason many of us walked away from the film having forgotten this scene. It’s the reason we’re not talking about it—because, in many ways, we also consider it to be normal. Many, many women (if not most) will experience some act of unwanted sexual attention or aggression at some point. We find this normal for women who aren’t in the music industry, and “Beyond the Lights” reminds us that we almost expect it for female entertainers. When those female entertainers are working in the rap industry, our perceptions are even more skewed.
There lies a powerful, troubling history of black women and their sexuality as it has been presented, performed, and exploited in America (writers like Tricia Rose, Gwendolyn D. Pough, Patricia Hill Collins, and many others have been investigating this for years), and we are now, still, witnessing the effects of that history, for better or for worse. There was a time when a black woman (who, as Sojourner Truth pointed out in “Ain’t I a Woman?,” was fighting to even be recognized as a woman) could not have accused a man of rape, especially if that man was white. Even those of us who know this history missed the critical importance of the scene where Noni was assaulted by Kid Culprit.
In the time that I’ve written this piece, it turns out that another woman has not come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault or rape. But I have seen more people come out in defense of Cosby. And Cosby himself has broken his silence, calling on the “black media” to maintain its integrity, and remain neutral. He has asked us to, essentially, have his back in this case.
I’m going to call on the so-called black media to do something different—to keep talking about sexual assault, in fictional narratives and otherwise. Until we start taking the time to theorize about these occurrences in all of our favorite films, shows, and other media, we will continue to miss their significance in the greater conversations about sexual assault and sexual identity. Especially now, when it is clear that people are coming together as a united front to actively fight against racism in our country, we need to be willing to address the myriad issues plaguing our communities and our relationships. In focusing on the story of a woman of color, “Beyond the Lights,” and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, and ask us all to consider the role pop culture, and hip-hop can play in complicating that message. No one group of people, no one system is responsible for the issues reflected in Noni’s attack, but many of us are in a position to start speaking out and addressing such issues—especially within the context of the seemingly subtle events that are easily put out of mind, once the credits begin to roll.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul Magazine. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay. You can still be friends, and she welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.