scene in “Beyond the Lights” that hit me with unexpected, eye-watering
emotional force. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a hugely popular R&B singer with a
massive fan base, stands in the bathroom mirror of a remote island hotel resort
where few know her fame. Slowly, and seemingly on a whim, she starts to remove
her trademark straight purple weave, the strands falling into the sink as she
fashions the curly hair underneath into a shorter, more natural style. Writer-director
Gina Prince-Bythewood shoots this with little fanfare, almost nonchalantly, yet
I was overwhelmed by the scene’s quiet power. It exists on so many levels, and
I responded tearfully to each of them because, by this point, “Beyond the
Lights” had shown me so much of this character’s internal and external struggle
that I felt I knew her. I understood that this was the first time Noni probably
had any say in her appearance since she became famous. The simple act of
choosing how she presented herself was a rebellious moment of true liberation,
a crucial first step in her self-healing process.
minutes later, “Beyond the Lights” goes for a grander, operatic moment that
serves as a more blatant, yet equally effective reiteration of Noni’s character
rebirth. But I admired and respected Prince-Bythewood’s faith in the audience’s
ability to pick up subtler nuances. As writer-director of “Disappearing Acts,” “The
Secret Life of Bees,” and her masterpiece, “Love and Basketball,” Prince-Bythewood
specializes in characters who are as complex as those residing in literature.
The people she writes have lives that exist separately from their romantic and
societal entanglements. The audience tags along with each of her creations down
their separate pathways, so when a character reacts to a certain situation, we
know why. Sometimes we can even predict what they’ll do before they act.
is unafraid of both the quiet moment and those of melodramatic grandiosity. The
trailers for her films do them quite a disservice, for they contain scenes
that, out of context, appear hokey, but in context bear an effectiveness that
stings and stuns. “Beyond the Lights” makes unapologetically damning statements
about the music industry’s treatment of women, yet it never feels preachy. It
strikes a risky, though successful balancing act between being immensely entertaining
as a musical feature and making dramatic, important statements about
depression, self-worth and female empowerment.
center of “Beyond the Lights” is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who does her own singing and
embodies Noni so fiercely that she sears the screen. This is a star-making performance;
Noni is a complete 180-degree turn from the titular character she played in “Belle..
“Beyond the Lights” gives her complicated song and dance numbers, scenes of
immense strength and overpowering weakness, and a romance that plays like a
less tragic “A Star is Born” or “Mahogany,” had “Mahogany” been any good. This
is an incredibly rich role and Mbatha-Raw commands every second she’s onscreen.
her is Nate Parker, who plays Kaz, her love interest and bodyguard, and Minnie
Driver, who plays Noni’s driven stage mother, Macy Jean. Macy Jean is the meanest,
most complex stage mother since Mama Rose in "Gypsy." Kaz is soulful
and suave, yet possesses a vulnerability that is sometimes comic and always
sweet. Both actors give outstanding performances and have scenes where they
rise to the challenge and match Mbatha-Raw’s ferocity. Prince-Bythewood’s script
is extremely charitable, giving Driver a knockout of a speech about her
struggles in England as “a poor White mother with a Black baby” and allowing
Parker an equal share of the film’s most powerful moment with Mbatha-Raw.
Lights” opens with Macy Jean taking the young Noni (a fantastic India
Jean-Jacques) to a talent contest. Noni sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” which
becomes her unofficial theme song. “Why you wanna fly, Blackbird?” Noni sings. “You
ain’t ever gonna fly.” Noni wins second place when she clearly deserves the
winning trophy, and Macy Jean not only makes a scene but she cruelly forces the
briefly proud Noni to discard the trophy in the street. Prince-Bythewood has
Noni sing “Blackbird” again later at the island resort, an adult version
mirroring her youthful one in both style and situation. Mbatha-Raw replaces the
innocence of Jean-Jacques’ version with the adult Noni’s sense of cathartic
release, and the effect is hauntingly beautiful.
gets to that romantic island getaway, which she shares with Kaz, Noni has to navigate
a horrific amount of the sexist behavior that comes with being a singer of
hooks in rap songs and appearances at the BET and MTV awards. Noni is dressed
to sell sex, and she sings about it with Rihanna-like aplomb. She’s teamed with
an Eminem-like rapper whom she’s dating, and her success is at first directly
tied to his. “Beyond the Lights” paints a dark picture of the music industry;
at one point, on live TV, the rapper
practically sexually assaults Noni because she’s “being disrespectful.” Kaz leaps
to her aid, and his chivalry doesn’t go unrewarded.
practically babysitters,” Kaz’s police officer dad (Danny Glover) tells him.
Dad wants Kaz to run for office, and we spend enough time with Parker and his
subplot to flesh out his character. This enriches his romance with Noni, a
romance that Dad thinks is detrimental. It’s to Prince-Bythewood’s credit that
Kaz’s first run-in with Noni is far from a Meet Cute. She’s on a balcony about
to kill herself, and Kaz is called upon to do his job. This scene is so
delicately written that the slightest misstep would have made it collapse.
Parker’s old-school leading man charm is akin to Billy Dee Williams’ in “Lady
Sings the Blues”; coupled with Mbatha-Raw’s naked vulnerability, it helps turn
some potentially ripe melodramatic dialogue into one of the most powerfully
rendered two-hander scenes of 2014.
Lights” is an epic movie, crammed with comedy, drama, music and romance, yet it
never feels overstuffed. It makes its important statements while being
immensely entertaining. At the Toronto Film Festival premiere I attended, the
director stated she cut the film’s extremely hot sex scene down to obtain a
PG-13 because she wanted teenage girls to experience the film’s strong female
empowerment vibe. The film has that, and it has two Black people in a romance,
but that doesn’t mean it’s just for women or African-Americans. “Beyond the
Lights” includes elements that speak to those groups within a much bigger scope
that appeals to all viewers.
Q&A after the film's TIFF screening, Prince-Bythewood talked about how difficult it was
to get this film made. Given her talent, one should find this hard to believe.
Hopefully, “Beyond the Lights” will draw the attention to her that “Love and
Basketball” should have. That film has a permanent place in my heart, and while
"Beyond the Lights" won’t replace it, there’s enough room in there
for it to nest. I haven’t been able to shake this movie, or Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s
performance, since I saw it two months ago. This is a fantastic film. Drop what
you’re doing and go see it.