The intricacies of our identities are what make us unique. However, ostracization and othering are also used in a society that delights in placing people in boxes. Netflix’s Beauty, directed by Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu and written by Lena Waithe, centers on one young woman’s determination to hold on to her identity amid her rising fame. Set in the ’80s on the East Coast, Beauty follows a young singer (Gracie Marie Bradley) who, after earning a lucrative recording contract, is determined to define herself outside of the oppressive household of her hyper-religious parents (portrayed by Niecy Nash and Giancarlo Esposito). 

Though she has the support of her lover and best friend, Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon), Beauty is aware that the world may never accept her for who she truly is. Just ahead of Beauty’s Netflix premiere, Shadow and Act sat down to speak with Dosunmu about the film, why it’s his love letter to Black women vocalists across generations, and the real reason we never hear Beauty sing a note.

"[Beauty] was a way of me writing a love letter to great African American female vocalists," Dosunmu explained. "That was the Genesis for me after reading the script. I like the fact that it's about family. It's about that pressure you get with family. It's about a family governed by religion — spirituality; those are the things that drew me to it. I love the fact that it's this love story. It's just these young teenagers trying to figure out themselves." 

“That was the Genesis for me after reading the script. I like the fact that it’s about family. It’s about that pressure you get with family. It’s about a family governed by religion — spirituality; those are the things that drew me to it. I love the fact that it’s this love story. It’s just these young teenagers trying to figure out themselves.”

As we move through Beauty, Dosunmu weaves in beautiful vignettes of some of our greatest vocalists, including Sarah Vaughan and Patti LaBelle. “These were all the singers that Beauty is watching,” the filmmaker said. “It’s almost like research; she’s studying all these great Black female vocalists. I wanted to take some of those and introduce some new singers as well.”

Viewers watching Beauty might see parallels between the fictional singer's story and the real life of the late Whitney Houston.

However, Dosunmu says that family is the true heartbeat of this film. “I look at Beauty as almost like Steel Magnolias,” he revealed. “She’s like this fish out of water. Everybody wants something from her. They’re not even making her a participant in this decision-making.”

Beauty deals with challenging themes, including religiosity, homophobia, sexism, greed and so much more. Dosunmu says that considering the weight of the film’s topics having award-winning actors like Nash and Esposito on set made it a safe space. “They’re both parents,” the director said. “So they do understand. For me, directing is about conversation. Through conversation, everybody evolves and interprets in their own way. So that was beautiful.”

In addition to the veteran actors, newcomer Bradley shines as Beauty.

“We saw a lot of girls, and they were great,” Dosunmu remembered. “I remember seeing Gracie Marie, and I’m like, ‘There’s something really interesting about her.’ It’s her persona. She embodies a quiet power, which is what’s so brilliant about her. She’s an observer, and she’s very strong.”

Though Beauty is a singer and a dozen vocalists are showcased in the film, we never hear Beauty’s voice in the movie. “I just thought there’s something really beautiful that the audience can psychologically and emotionally be on Beauty’s journey,” Dosunmu said. “I think music distracted. The fact that we have all these greats around her elevates whatever anyone could sing on screen. Trying to make her sing almost defeats that.”

Instead of focusing on Beauty’s voice, Dosunmu hopes the film propels the audience to consider other things. “Art is supposed to depict the issues of the society — of that moment,” he said. “This film is about love, and why would anyone want to restrict that.”

'Beauty' is now streaming on Netflix

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.