From the trailer itself, it was evident this Netflix original feature was an unacknowledged, unofficial portrait of a singing superstar who we know as ‘The Voice,’ also the figure behind the best-selling soundtrack of all time. You know who she is, so there has to be no unnecessary room for speculation.
Beauty is more of an impressionistic portrait of the beginnings of that voice and treads the territory of expectations, familial strains and the first steps towards a glorious future. It covers relatively humble grounds. Grounds where pressures of maintaining a facade are supreme while passive-aggressive manipulative levers pull and push the titular protagonist around a culture of opportunity.
Gracie Marie Bradley and Aleyse Shannon are almost identical to singing superstar Whitney Houston and her best friend/manager Robyn’s real-life tenacity as best friends and lovers. There is an innate sense of them sharing dreams for the future together, in a way only friendship can naturally entail and allow. Same-gender affinities stand out in that mould especially. The deep attraction they nurture for each other and cherish gets a retrospective representation here. Over the last few years, two documentaries, Whitney and Whitney: Can I Be Me? have especially delved into that aspect of this irrepressible bond between the two so the repressed embers are no longer hidden. Beauty’s family members hold Jasmine at a distance and begrudgingly give her the space the prodigal future superstar lovingly shares with her. A dining room conversation is rife with suppressed but all-too identifiable hostility towards her. Every conflict point here is funnelled through Beauty’s future and career aspects. Her relationship with Jasmine retains its charm even within that hostile environment. Cue the parts where she confidently becomes Beauty’s manager and even snaps at a music producer for calling her names with a fearless ‘my girl’ refrain. The connection to real-life parallels to Whitney and Robyn’s dynamics is uncanny — as is Shannon’s look.
Even among the family dynamics, the passive-aggressive embers are never out of the picture. So when Beauty wants to have her lawyer look at her contract, especially at Jasmine’s behest, her father physically overpowers her. It would be disingenuous to say it is offset by his seemingly loving exterior at other points. Every action of his is tinged with self-interest. Beauty is the golden goose for him in particular.
Giancarlo Esposito, true to his simmering sense of anger and facial tics, extends his toxicity as he chides and berates his sensitive son and openly gives the other one instructions to physically hurt Jasmine. That brief source of ethical tension between the brothers in the car is gripping. The nature of the harm inflicted on her isn’t spelled out. It’s just that Beauty is shown attending to her at the bedside in the hospital.
On the other hand, it’s a given that Niecy Nash is a Cissy Houston representative on-screen. There’s tough love but concern for her daughter. She is the practical voice here, knowing how high hopes derailed her singing career in a more unwilling past era marked by racial segregation. There’s a standout scene where she lets Beauty know that she’s always understood her orientation because ‘mothers know.’ But she clarifies that the world isn’t ready for it to be openly accepted.
Director Andrew Dosunmu gives his screenplay (written by Lena Waithe) a swooning, jazzy pulse. This gestural articulation never lets us hear the voice but rather observe the impressionistic stillness of this particular atmosphere. Beauty watches are immersed in the performative fluidity of several icons on television. She receives lessons from her mother to hone her voice further. Her gospel singing antecedents, too, play an instrumental part.
The central romance benefits especially from that swooning, evocative approach. However, Beauty ultimately becomes an exercise in futility because the abrupt end-point comes with the protagonist’s first major television appearance. Hence, this could have benefited if the runtime was longer or if it was the fledgling first half of a miniseries. The potential of it is undone by the one and a half hours of runtime along with the increasingly lethargic pace. The internal worlds and motivations also become very single-minded. So, there is a lot that could have been expanded with more effective stakes here. Unfortunately, Beauty ends up becoming a cipher even with the all-too recognizable back story of an absolute icon and its impressive aesthetics.
Beauty is now streaming exclusively on Netflix
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.