If anyone doubts that Gugu Mbatha-Raw deserves to be a star, Beyond The Lights would like to have a word with you.
As pop star Noni (dressed and outfitted in a vaguely Rhianna and/or Beyonce mold), Mbatha-Raw is captivating in every frame.
In the film’s early scenes, she effortlessly conveys her character’s confusion and sadness, which lie just behind the mask she puts on for the lucrative spectacle, engineered in no small part by her mom (Minnie Driver); in its later ones, as she comes into her own, she’s formidable but calm, having wrested control over her own life from everyone else. Her rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” which plays a key role in the film, is mission statement and revolutionary decree. Mbatha-Raw earns every bit of it.
There’s the unmistakable sense of an actress completely inhabiting a character. In a fantastic interview with Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve, director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood — who also made the widely adored Love and Basketball — reveals that she secured financing for Beyond The Lights by shopping around a short video showcasing Mbatha-Raw. That’s entirely appropriate – hers is a star-making turn.
As it happens, the film around her is wonderful, too.
We meet Noni as a young girl on the way to a talent show. Her white mom can’t do her hair, so in desperation they visit a black-owned salon. This could’ve been the kind of treacly sentiment the (most) recent “Kevin Costner Saves The Off-White Folks” vehicle Black or White shows every sign of being, but the scene instead grounds the film, and comes off honest. Issues of assimilation, otherness, and perception are the film’s main focus. The scene is particular and pointed, and builds its characters.
As Macy Jean, Driver is dealt the film’s worst hand – the oblivious show-biz mom – but even she finds empathy in the role … despite demanding Noni throw away her runner-up prize. There’s no place for losers here — a sentiment that both showcases her severity and her determination that her daughter succeed, which is basically born of compassion. Even in broad strokes, I think many people know parents like this.
We jump forward to the awards shows and afterparties to come. Noni is the celebrated, and highly sexualized, backup performer for the scummy Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly), and her solo album is about to drop. She should be on top of the world, but, as she hastily interacts with fans and looks anxiously at Macy Jean, still running the show from the sidelines, it’s clear things aren’t right.
So it’s no surprise when she steps on the ledge of her hotel balcony.
She’s rescued by Kaz (Nate Parker, also terrific), short for Kazaam – “My parents thought it sounded African,” he notes. He’s an off-duty cop moonlighting for a security service, and being groomed for political office by his ambitious dad (Danny Glover) and his dad’s powerful friends.
The rest of the film tracks their relationship, and the ways in which they try, succeed, and fall short of determining their own destinies in the face of manipulation, commerce, and the expectations of those they love.
Beyond The Lights also has a lot to say about celebrity culture and the representation of female bodies in mainstream culture, but it does so in ways that serve the story. And that story is, ultimately, in the classic romance genre – it is not a romantic comedy, it doesn’t assume a tidy ending or wink at you about how silly romance movies are. It’s as earnest as its characters, which is incredibly refreshing.
Beyond The Lights is everything everyone says they want to support, but rarely do (it made a respectable $14 million back on its $7 million budget, but wasn’t exactly a breakout hit). It boasts a Black female director/screenwriter; an almost entirely non-white cast; an actual romance in the classic sense (it shares more than a little with Roman Holiday, in which actual princess Audrey Hepburn flees the confines of her expected role to run around Rome with Cary Grant … always a good plan); and nuanced, believable characters, with two star-making roles for its leads. It’s a mid-budget picture played to a wide audience (it’s not a comic book movie, franchise installment, or navel-gazing indie). It has the added bonus of being really smart, really well-done, and starring two impossibly attractive humans falling in complicated love.
I wish I’d seen it last year so I could’ve railed about how little recognition it got. I didn’t, and you might not have either. Time to fix that.