Beauty is a movie inspired by the adolescent years of Whitney Houston. It is not about Whitney Houston so much as taking what we know of her and exploring her journey from the beloved daughter of a working-class Black family to the moment before her star would explode across our lives. It is evocative in ways other movies about Houston would try to be banal and melodramatic.
Andrew Dosunmu’s look is not a sordid tell-all about one of our greatest musicians. It is a mediation of the American dream. Lena Waithe’s script is contemplative in shrewd ways. Again, this is not a movie about Whitney Houston, except it is.
Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley) is the favorite child of the family. Touched by God or the angels, she is considered the ticket to a better life. Bradley shows the weight of this kind of pressure in how she walks and sits. Her shoulders are always slightly sagging or hunched, except when she’s on stage or singing.
Though we never see or hear Beauty sing. We are only told she is miraculous. The few times we see her sing, we do not hear her voice; Dosunmu allows Philip Miller’s haunting score to wash over us. Beauty is an intimate portrait of a star that we barely get to know. By the movie’s end, we are left wondering if we could ever know her.
Waithe’s script at times feels like a fable, with emotions and characters painted with broad strokes but with a fine brush. Beauty’s father, played by the always outstanding Giancarlo Esposito, has no name. He is merely Beauty’s father. The same goes for Beauty’s mother, played beautifully by Niecy Nash.
Her brothers are named Cain (Micahel Ward) and Abel (Kyle Bary) fittingly. It is fitting considering the family’s devotion both to God and the Church. Which church is never mentioned other than it has Gospel, and that it is where Beauty got her start. Dosunmu and Waithe never delve into specifics by design.
In many ways, Beauty is a biopic cleverly made without the subject or her family’s permission with brazen shortcuts to avoid having to pay expensive royalties. Furthermore, it is a tone poem about a young woman named Beauty who’s in love with her best friend Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon) and is poised to be a star the likes of which most never dream of being.
Benoit Delhomme’s camera frames every scene in a manner that comes off as pristine but too pristine. There’s an undercurrent of something off, all is not well, and the smiles don’t reach the eyes. But it’s when Delhomme’s lensing is mixed with Oriana Soddu’s editing that Beauty leaps into the realm of evocative. Dosunmu utilizes Delhomme’s camera and Soddu’s pacing to give Beauty an almost ethereal stream of consciousness feel.
In a sense, Beauty feels like a dream. But, again, Beauty is not about Whitney Houston, but a dream Waithe and Dosunmu had about Houston.
Dosunmu and Waithe are precise in what they don’t say and don’t show. Take, for example, the scenes in which Beauty has her headphones on; we do not hear what she hears. Beauty is allowed to keep that part of her private. In a sense, Beauty has a heightened sense of voyeurism in that we are allowed to look but never see. We see Beauty watch icons such as Patti LaBelle on television or listen to records, but we do not get to peer into her private moments.
The same goes for the other characters. We are only afforded, through dialogue, the family’s history. It is as if we are a fly on the wall, an intruder, forced to glimpse information by playing detective. For instance, we learn that Cain is Beauty’s half-brother, and her parents treat him as such. He walks through the family house as a family member, but it also feels like he is on borrowed time. It is also implied that Beauty’s mother was once promised the very things the record producer is now promising Beauty. Sharon Stone plays the producer. Again her name is never known, but she is credited as Colonizer.
How Black people are treated and how Black talent is cultivated are woven into the fabric of Beauty. Hand in hand with that sadness is simmering anger at a business that set Beauty up to succeed without caring about her well-being.
Stone’s Colonizer tells Beauty that they are trying to make her acceptable to “white audiences.” So they’ll have her sing not a song from her upcoming album but a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So, the white audience will know the music is wholesome.
Dosunmu then shows us Beauty watching Judy Garland sing that same song on television. She watches, transfixed, as anyone would, by the talent. But then she sees Patti LaBelle sing the song. It’s as if she’s been transported. LaBelle brings a soulful melancholy different from Garland’s. A sort of weary sadness that rests in the bones that Beauty can relate to.
Bradley and Shannon’s chemistry is captivating, mainly because they have an easy kind of intensity. They are in love, but in a way that neither of them is sure of. Beauty and Jasmine’s queerness is never stated outright or labeled; it merely is, existing unremarked but plain as day. It troubles her mother and father, vexes Cain, and presents a problem for the Colonizer to try and market around.
Esposito and Nash, of course, are excellent. They can’t help but not be. Still, the way they play off each other and off of Bradley, and eventually Stone, is riveting. Nash, in particular, feels like she is entering a phase in her career where she is finally getting her due.
Her mother has hurt, jealousy, and sadness bubbling beneath the surface at all times, which is heartbreaking. She is hurt because she knows her husband is cheating on her. If that wasn’t enough, she knows her daughter views her as overbearing and tyrannical. But also, because she wishes it was her and not Beauty being given the world, she will spend her life behind the spotlight instead of in it.
Beauty is an enthralling piece of work. At times I felt frustrated by how distant it felt, only to find myself in awe at its audaciousness. Unfortunately, as of this writing, I have seen very little written or talked about, which is a shame. I fear Beauty will be washed away in the tidal wave of Minions and Thor: Love and Thunder. It will be a shame if it does, for we will have ignored work of tender artistry.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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