by Kai McDaniel
On November 14th, I went to see Beyond The Lights in theaters. Since the movie just came out the same day, I was really excited and I rallied up friends to go with me. Once it was set that the four of us were free to go, we looked into where the movie would be playing. I hoped it would be playing at Laemmle in The Village, since they show independent and mainstream films, and since it is close to campus. My friends and I were disappointed to find out that the Laemmle wouldn’t be showing the film that Friday or any day after that. It was vastly disappointing to me because previously the Laemmle didn’t have Dear White People in their multiplex as well. Despite the fact that they weren’t showing these films, there were showing Interstellar and Big Hero 6. This got me thinking about the films that are in movie theaters and those that aren’t. This is an issue of distribution that in turn becomes an issue of access.
Many media scholars believe that media is the last stronghold of constricting ideologies about race, gender, sexuality and so on. This is due to producers’ assumptions that consumers may not be ready for portrayals that step outside of the status quo of media, be it ads in magazines, commercials, or the characters and content we see on television and in film. They are primarily focused on not losing money, which in a sense is reasonable in terms of business. Yet, when business conflicts with content viewers are allowed to see, then there is something wrong with how the media industry is run.
Beyond the Lights was almost never made due to the “business” side of the film industry. The directer Gina Prince-Bythewood has expressed to Flavorwire that it took six years to make the film. She thought it would be an “easy sell” because the film is a contemporary love story and an inside look into the music industry, yet she was met with resistance from studios. She was turned down from nearly all but one studio who “didn’t even say they were going to make it.” They just said, “We’ll pay you not to take it anywhere else, and we’ll see if we can find somebody to put in here that we’re excited about.’” This studio apparently struggled with Prince-Bythewood’s pick of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker as the lead characters. As she told Clutch magazine, Prince-Bythewood was told she needed to find a white male lead. Finally Prince-Bythewood had to part ways with that studio, and was financed by BET and Relativity Media. The underlying reason why her film took so long to make, and hardly got promotion before its release was that studios have a limited perception of what film roles people of color should play. They believe that a story about two black characters won’t be successful, so they don’t even attempt to share these stories. Prince-Bythewood explained that she has had difficulty as a directer not because she is a Black female, but because she is not able to tell stories in the way she wants to. It is her personal goal to “abolish the black film genre and just have people of color in every genre, and tell universal stories that everyone can identify with.” This seems like a reasonable goal and makes one wonder why studios presume diversity won’t sell.
After I saw Beyond the Lights, I felt like seeing it again. It was such a likable story. No; the film was not incredibly ground-breaking; it had its cliche moments. Yet, I can say it will be one of my go-to love story films if I’m ever in the mood to watch a love story film marathon. The film was refreshing simply because it stepped out of the constricting box of “black film” Prince-Bythewood spoke of. It showed three-dimensionality of its characters and as such it is a universal tale. There should be more films like this. This is a new day, people have diverse interests, and so it is critical that the films we see reflect this diversity. It is time for studios to let go of the stereotypical constructs they use to define characters of color, because when the “business” side of media influences, content-viewers lose.