2017 Film Essays

‘Beyond the Lights’ and ‘Into the Forest’: Nina Simone as a Tool for Female Empowerment

The female gaze, when expanded and reproduced through various media, can be a significant tool of empowerment for exploring and blending different artistic themes and forms. Representing an inspiring pinnacle of diversity and feminism, two directors with different scopes, visions and artistic drives — Gina Prince-Bythewood and Patricia Rozema — use popular Nina Simone songs as weapons to analyze the female experience through different journeys.

Prince-Bythewood is an American director whose personal storytelling draws from the familiar and abstract black female experience. Her protagonists are usually black girls, ambitious and empowered by their own talent, torn between a life that exists and one they aspire to have. In Beyond the Lights, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young and overtly sexualized black singer, finds solace through a failed suicide attempt and her love for Simone’s “Blackbird.” Despite being buried to the bone in the hypersexualized, misogynist pop music industry, Noni breaks free with a trip to Mexico, where she takes off her hair extension and acrylic nails, settling for a completely natural look while singing “Blackbird” in front of a low-key, unassuming audience. Noni’s guttural performance is the ultimate rescue that results from a troubled relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Even though the police officer who saves the singer’s life plays an integral role in her artistic self-discovery, it’s all on Noni when she ditches her satirical and super-sexualized brand of music. And she looks to Simone for inspiration. “Blackbird” is no regular choice for Noni’s artistic and patriotic journey, as Simone does not just speak of the black experience. Her song is symbolic of gender, race and class disadvantages.

Setting aside the black experience, viewers are thrown head-first into, perhaps, the first post-apocalyptic, female-centric tale that does not involve cutoffs and sexy women with guns. Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest is an impressive, artistic attempt at defining the isolated, male-free, feminine experience as a backdrop of Man vs. Nature. When a massive power isolates two sisters in the middle of a forest, they hold onto both their home and their love for each other. Rozema is no stranger to female/female relationships. Films like Mansfield Park and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing focus on women interacting with other women; the first revolves around a heterosexual, period love story, whereas the second examines a beautiful, lesbian love triangle. With Into the Forest, Rozema presents a tale of two sisters, who battle the end of the world, their own demons, sexual crimes and an unexpected pregnancy. The artistic sister, whose sexual orientation is left ambiguous throughout the entire film, expresses her emotions through dance, to the sound of Cat Power’ s version of “Wild Is the Wind” – a Simone cover song.

As the opening credits roll, Rozema introduces the characters’ world through lyrics, and Cat Power’s interpretation owes to the feminine power of Simone’s version. Choreographed scenes, featuring Evan Rachel Wood’s Eva, display the perfect combination of female liberty and empowerment — despair, acceptance, frustration and passion. Whereas “Blackbird” represents feminine loneliness, isolation, discrimination and despair, “Wild is the Wind” is an erotic, emotional jazz tune — words hang onto the piano chords, producing a sad, melodic atmosphere.

At first, Eva struggles artistically after a knee injury, while her sister Nell (Ellen Page) explores her own path by falling in love and finding academic ambition. The three main characters have diverse sexual identities, which is key for a genuine, female-centric tale, featuring an LGBT-empowered cast. But Rozema opts for no easy solutions for the characters.

Both directors have stayed true to themselves. Rozema strips down female/female relationships, while Prince-Bythewood reflects on the isolation of a young black woman. By showing the female perspective of a post-apocalyptic world, Rozema handles a magnanimous theme through an intimate story —  her perspective and narrative style draws inspiration from the characters’ internal struggles to comment on the lack of human interaction. Each director uses art to bring women closer to their true selves; Noni finds her true voice by singing “Blackbird,” while Nell gets closer to Eva and finally understands her pain by watching her dance to “Wild is the Wind.”

Nina Simone’s art seeps into the cracks of both Into the Forest and Beyond the Lights — two ambitious films. Her music sews underlying themes and motifs without being too blatant. A survival tale becomes an abstract art piece, communicating how women pay the price in a violent, decaying, male-dominated world. In another specific universe, a tale of artistic self-discovery criticizes the image of women in the music industry, as well as women pressuring women to become phantom images of who they originally aspire to be. All women ultimately find their peace, if not their ultimatum, and the viewer never suffers a killjoy moment.

Jaylan Salman (@Jaylan Salman) is a young, Egyptian feminist who believes firmly in gender equality and racial diversity. She is a film critic, poet, translator and a novelist. Her first short story collection “Thus spoke La Loba” was published in 2016 by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture after winning a national prize, coming first place and gaining critical acclaim. One of her poems “Poof, Vagina” won first prize in the “Bleed on the Page” competition held by “TheProse.com.” Her writing contributions include various international and local publications, including ZEALnyc, Africiné, Guardian Liberty Voice, Elephant Journal, Synchronized Chaos and many more.


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