Saturday 23 August 2014, by
Beauty Is is a 2-hour documentary about the attitudes and opinions of Black British women and men on the meaning of Black beauty. For women. The film argues that complex processes of internalised racism and alienation have arisen as a result of the media, cosmetic, health and fashion industries which idolise the white Barbie doll and are intent on helping Black women to become more like her. Beauty Is sets about unpacking the struggles for Black women that result from the social pressures to straighten their hair and lighten their skin and the various issues around self-worth, self-hate, self-harm and self-actualisation that result.
When comparing the documentary Beauty Is to Good Hair, in which Chris Rock begins with the premise that black women want a certain kind of hair (i.e., straight, long and easily attached weaves), and examines the industries that surround this desire, the shortcoming of Beauty Is becomes clear— it possesses no single argument, no single focus. Director Toyin Agbetu clearly has extensive knowledge about colourism throughout the African diaspora, so it was surprising and more than a little disappointing not to hear more analysis from activists and academics on colourism in the UK in 2014. The problem is that the film attempts to be relevant to all Black people, everywhere, all the time; but I’m not sure it should be. The Black British voice is relatively silenced—even in London in which the US Civil Rights Movement is talked to death during the month of October—so a UK context is not only refreshing, but absolutely necessary.
Whilst the film was clever, insightful and accessible to a diverse audience, I wanted the concept of beauty to move beyond the hair, skin and bodies of Black girls and women. Transwomen were excluded entirely as was anyone speaking specifically to Black representation, desire and objectification in the LGBT communities. The Black men in the film were opinionated about their likes and dislikes when mating and dating, but did not discuss how this was shaped by their own experiences in their families or engagement with media (film, TV, porn, etc.). The film was at its best when people shared stories that revealed racially coded attitudes or contradictions in behaviour. Despite the commentary, the film did not offer any solutions beyond individual responsibility or highlight the psycho-social constructions of Black identity. After all, if collectively these Black British women have similar stories, what can be said about womanhood and patriarchy generally? How is this embodied and performed when women are in the public and private spheres? What are the expressions of resistance beyond unprocessed hair and unbleached skin?
Toyin Agbetu’s talent for identifying intelligent women who are fearless in sharing their pain, disappointment and joy in their paths toward self-acceptance is enlightening for the viewer. However the scattered issues and fictional vignettes took away from their voices which spoke volumes on their own. Searching for the meaning of Black beauty, learning to love what’s in the mirror when it is not reflected in dominant narratives of beauty and setting out on an uncharted path all came from the hearts of the women in the film. Anyone remotely interested in these topics would be both educated and entertained, but a 60-minute documentary focusing on straight, gay and trans women, of their mothers, their daughters and their stories would have done more to move the Black beauty conversation forward.
Dir: Toyin Agbetu, 2014
Beauty Is is screening at The Nub, London Saturday 6th September 7pm.
More details about the film, screenings and the campaign: