Black girlhood in film rarely operates outside of pain. The narratives are heavy with abuse and misfortune, coating Black girlhood with negativity. However dark the tale, there’s still truth to a lot of the toxicity faced by the characters, especially when the narrative includes being part of the LGBTQ community. Netflix’s “Beauty” is a poetic take on the early years of the late Whitney Houston and adds Black variety to the indie genre. Written and directed by Lena Waithe, the film was designed to be a poignant illustration of the torment Houston faced as a destined singer. The cast is a perfect blend of new and old-school talent: Gracie Marie Bradley as Beauty, aka the young Whitney Houston, Niecy Nash as the mother, Giancarlo Esposito as the father, Micheal Ward as Cain and Kyle Bary as Abel.
Unlike all of Whitney Houston’s biopics, “Beauty” takes a huge risk by omitting Houston’s most recognizable feature: her voice. This isn’t the only ambitious touch to Houston’s identity either. The young Whitney Houston is instead referred to as Beauty in the film. Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley) is introduced to be the prized daughter of her mother (Niecy Nash), a former singer, and her father (Giancarlo Esposito). Her two brothers, Cain (Michael Ward) and Abel (Kyle Bary), experience a great deal of verbal abuse from their father but remain loyal to Beauty throughout the film. In the first 10 minutes, the family sits at the dinner table with the addition of Beauty’s close friend, Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon). The dinner table is a battleground that highlights the root of the familial toxicity — the father’s need to control. This control is even more apparent when Jasmine dares to speak at the table. The father’s contempt for Jasmine is confusing initially, however a few scenes later, it’s clear that Jasmine and Beauty are in a romantic relationship.
As the family’s talent, Beauty’s faith in her craft is put to the ultimate test when a music producer, credited as “Colonizer ” visits the home insisting that it’s time for Beauty to sign a record deal. Beauty’s father immediately is on board because of the money that will come from it, while Jasmine insists that Beauty acquire a lawyer. Beauty reluctantly signs the deal after facing pressure from her father, and her life as a budding singer progresses quickly.
The film glides through the next phase of Beauty’s life as she gets her own apartment, faces pressure to conform to the industry’s standard of beauty and faces temptation in her relationship with Jasmine. Despite the hurdles, the film ends with Beauty in a dazzling gold gown and an asymmetrical fro as she finally walks on stage to make her artist debut.
“Beauty” has many layers that make it a complex and radical piece of art. Lena Waithe’s track record shows a variety of films and TV shows, such as “Dear White People,” “Twenties” and “Them,” all telling different versions of Black stories. So it’s no wonder that with a story that’s been told plenty of times before, Waithe would take creative liberties that accentuate Houston’s early journey into Black womanhood.
What works for “Beauty” is that the story is simple. This allows Waithe the ability to create an alternate universe that doesn’t just include negative representations of Black stories. The abuse and toxicity are heavily present, but it’s softened by moody lighting, stylized camera pull-ins, and scenic montages overlaid by Beauty’s narration. Beauty’s girlhood is allowed to blossom as she falls deeper in love with Jasmine, and there are thankfully no diegetic sex scenes that could pigeon hole “Beauty” in a stereotypical box that many LBGTQ films get stuck in.
The powerful part of Beauty’s character lies in her choosing her own path, regardless of the expectations around her. Since Beauty was raised in the church, there’s a looming presence of southern gospels that follow her. She not only has to assert her place in the industry as a young Black woman, but she also has to decide what parts of her roots she wants to bring with her.
Beauty’s indecision is expertly shown through music. In some scenes, Beauty is gazing deeply at a fuzzy television screen that includes gospel singers like the Clark Sisters and Mahalia Jackson. In other scenes, she’s staring lovingly at Donna Summer crooning live in a sparkly outfit. The variety of music hints at Houston’s own style that would grow into a mix between the two worlds she once was conflicted to choose between.
Too much freedom in crafting a new universe can leave room for loose ends. Most of the characters present either didn’t have names or had Biblical names, such as Beauty’s brothers, Cain and Abel. The brothers are clearly troubled by the dark relationship with their father, but their actions to distance themselves from his vicious nature fall short. In one scene, the father instructs them to “get rid of” Jasmine, and the brothers follow suit. The next scene ends with the brothers in a heated tussle. They land on the snowy ground as the camera pans above them.
Jasmine is then lured outside and wakes up in a hospital with a bruised face. The film is unclear regarding what exactly happens to her, and if Cain and Abel inflicted her injuries. Beauty’s character also has strange moments like when she comes onto her male neighbor after he asks her to cut down her music. The pacing inevitably moves the story too fast, making the ending abrupt with no resolve for Beauty’s character.
This abrupt ending could be an artistic choice to mirror how fame may have cut Houston’s youth short. Technically, the viewer understands that Houston’s career took off and that the film could be interpreted as a window into the moments leading up to her fame.
With the gorgeous cinematography and long-winded narration, “Beauty” is between g a loose biopic and an arthouse film. This alone makes the film stand out as a Black girlhood film. It allows for Beauty to be vulnerable while having autonomy as she battles her hardships.
“Beauty” is a refreshing addition to the library of LGBTQ Black girlhood films. It creates the needed balance of dramatized reality that the indie genre excels in, and speaks to the harsh reality for Black LGBTQ youth. By focusing on Beauty’s youth, the film is a bittersweet glimpse into what molded Whitney Houston into the star she was.
“Beauty” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Adia Carter