The film Beyond The Lights is a multi-layered effort. Off the bat, it joins the small collective of black love showcased on the silver screen circuit. This remains an anomaly, drama or comedy, yet its trailer hinted at being more than just a “black film”, meaning it was written with the intent of being a story for the ages, even with a Rihanna-esque replication in the initial embodiment of the protagonist, the manipulative music industry for an intriguing background, and nods to its marginalized, prix fixe landscape for female artists. While for black audiences, it’s always a treat to see themselves, mainstream attention has often chosen to categorize films starring black actors as only appreciated by black film-goers. Beyond The Lights provides much to appreciate and race and racism are a minor factors, they are not the main focus.
So far, it’s been compared to The Bodyguard for its thematics and Love Jones for not just the obvious black coupling but also for its insistence that love trumps distance, outsiders, upbringing, but most of all doubt. The film’s scribe and director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, who still receives acclaim and fandom for Love & Basketball. A cult fave because of Love & Basketball, she’s an important figure for getting the lives of modern-day black women, who are more than just their skin tone, hair, and bodies, immortalized on film and television.
This time, Prince-Bythewood’s muse of choice is the beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw who impressively gave a wistful turn as Dido Elizabeth Belle in Belle, a biopic about history’s little known biracial aristocrat, also directed by fellow preeminent black filmmaker, Amma Asante. Mbatha-Raw returns again as a biracial women (Hollywood is beginning to use this as her calling because she happens to be so in real life) but in present day as the manufactured, on the rise hip-hop star Noni for Beyond The Lights.
At the beginning of the film, the new video for Noni’s raunchy single “Mastermind” featuring Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper MGK) has dropped from her album that’s of course titled Private Property, the two have won a Billboard Music Award, and she’s a paparazzi/social media magnet. As we’ve been told through VH1’s Behind the Music and E!’s True Hollywood Story, those glittering gold lights can lead towards a disturbing outlook on life, purpose, goals, and self-love and Noni is a total product of her environment. During the first quarter of the film she’s practically hypnotized in being a sex kitten entertainer through her language, dress, and behavior. You’re thrown right into vicariously experiencing this It girl nearly lose her mind while already given the heads up that despite her wild child ways, her musical idol since childhood is the bluesy Nina Simone, who delivered the kind of music she very secretly would like to create herself.
Noni attempts suicide by falling over the balcony of her hotel room after the Billboard Awards, and it is policeman and temporary pop star security guard Kaz (played by subtle hunk Nate Parker) who saves her just in time as a bond is formed without either one of them knowing. Fast forward to the film showing their love blossoming, Beyond The Lights swings from its sappy, inspiring halo of love conquering all and bringing out the inner beauty in anyone willing to be touched by this most universal virus. What can be appreciated most is certainly the union between Noni and Kaz, as Mbatha-Raw is an unexpected choice to play such a hyper-sexualized puppet (even during interviews she has a charming regal presence about her) the additional story within a story of Noni’s “us against the world” relationship with her mother is highly affective. Their unconditional alliance, even when conflicted, rivals her romance with Kaz in being a centerpiece of the film, though ultimately we know neither one is not. It is Noni’s re-discovery of who she is, but the sub-plots are detailed passionately.
Noni is birthed and raised by her single White mother Macy Jean in England, and as a teenager, Macy had a tryst with Black male that after hearing of her pregnancy left her for dead. Macy’s family’s shunned her being pregnant with a “Black baby”, and life at first is a downtrodden experience for Macy and Noni. Macy is played by the underrated Minnie Driver and Driver brings a her reliably fantastic whipsmart grit–just with a boost of scathing cynicism for record executives. As both mother and manager, she’s another enabler in Noni’s fast life, often choosing to be blind to her daughter’s distress for the sake of them both succeeding in a fickle field. Critics will compare Macy’s attributes to that of Kris Jenner, the matriarchal force behind the Kardashian and Jenner multi-media empire, but there’s more to Macy than just the conniving surface of her character. By the end of the film, you root for her to keep going but in a healthier manner as you do for Noni. Yes, she plays along with the music industry’s standards of selling sex as the answer and key to mega success. Yes, sometimes she just wants to win and does so by any means necessary. Yes, she almost managed to keep Kaz away from Noni, or at least dissuade him from caring about her. Lest, she is a mother that loves her daughter to the point of losing direction, or if at all, her sense of morals, and just wants to thrive because their lives used to be so hopeless. A win for Noni is a win for Macy because when her daughter triumphs, it’s another “I told you so” moment that she can catapult towards her naysaying parents.
Macy’s blasé behavior in Noni not having much of an identity as an artist and person is almost laughable because you do begin to wonder, what exactly is clouding her better judgment, but there’s a pivotal scene in while the two argue, she becomes aware that possibly her push and shove ways have reached its limit. When she exclaims her unconditional love for her only child, and after she’s fired as manager, her coolness melts, and while because she had no choice but to falter, finally a mother is seen that was just always trying, and not a wannabe mogul. She didn’t always do the right thing or even knew what to do, but she’s was always there. That must count for something.
In the metamorphosis of Noni from hip-hop tart to a true soul artist, Beyond The Lights is like the visual prequel to the 2004 hip hop satire Bling, a novel written by the late Erica Kennedy. Bling unhooked the velvet rope of the hip hop industry as Kennedy knew it all too well as a pop culture and fashion writer, correspondent, and vagabond of its parties and events. Kennedy exposed how the players and hopefuls of an unforgiving climate tried to survive, including the facts that women were to be seen and under Svengali rule, and men, hapless leaders. The protagonist is similar to that of Noni: a young, mixed-race girl with talent in spades, her gift stifled by the stereotypical and boring decisions made for her to be just another R&B girl sexpot. It was a brilliant parody of how cool the music industry really thought it was, and Prince-Bythewood has taken Kennedy’s blueprint, bringing further attention to how unfairly women are expected to be the girl every wants and wants to be, on top of fighting for her art, fighting with her mother, and falling in love with a guy that doesn’t understand her world as a celebrity.
Beyond The Lights touches on loyalty, family, ambition, and most importantly, the imperative need to be real even when it hurts, and this is strewn through all the major characters played by Mbatha-Raw, Driver, and Parker. The film is particularly hopeful on the latter, and even when it implodes from so much wishful thinking or accessibility, it wins as a reminder that all everybody wants is to be loved and as themselves.