Two weeks ago, I wrote about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film Love & Basketball, a film which I genuinely find to be incredible. Finally, after having missed its theatrical run, I was able to rent Beyond the Lights on Amazon (support female directed films!) and watch it. I LOVED it. Its such an arbitrary thing but I’m so annoyed that I didn’t have a chance see it during the 2014 year because it surely would have ended up on my best of the year list. It was truly a remarkable piece of work and its a shame, though unsurprising, that it passed by with such little attention.
First and foremost, the directing is wonderful. It’s engrossing in ways few films are, inviting viewers into this glamorous world where people are damaged and angry and cut throat. However, instead of asking us to cast a disdainful or judgmental eye on the characters in question, we’re instead asked to emphasize and listen. Its shot so that the naturally good-looking leads, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, are ethereal. They’re so wrapped up in their own bubble and so enraptured by one another that their beauty spills out. They’re all they have eyes for and the film is shot accordingly.
Noni Jean played by Mbatha-Raw has always wanted to be a singer, ever since she was a little girl and sang Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at her very first talent contest. Her mother (Minnie Driver), along with a culture that’s pervasive nature encourages and forces women to become nothing more than labels (mother, whore, virgin, saint, friend) or sex objects, has turned her talent into little more than an afterthought. She’s about to blow up, has just won a major award and should, as her mother reminds her, be happy. Yet Noni ends up on the roof of her hotel, about to jump in a drunken stupor when a young police officer Kaz (Parker), saves her at the last moment, telling her that he can see the real her under the fabricated super star.
So begins their sweet and introspective love affair, and is matched in warmth by the directing. The contrast between Noni’s world in the spotlight with her mother and her world of escapism with Kaz is cleverly done. The former is cold, stark and somber with grays dominating the screen. The latter is warm and lush, with hues and color like honey.
So much of Noni’s personal struggles are refreshing to see onscreen. Its an honest portrait of what it means to be a woman in the entertainment industry and to a slightly lesser degree, a woman in general. The Noni we meet in the opening minutes of Beyond the Lights is very different from the stripped bare Noni we see as the film ends. Noni the singer starts as an illusion more than a human being. As the movie continues and she escapes the people who have created this facade and exploited her, she becomes more raw. She allows herself to take off her weave and heavy makeup, she sings the way she wants to sing, dances how she likes, and falls in love with a man outside of her industry who saw the girl under the star. Noni isn’t perfect and she’s insecure, but as she begins to let go she becomes more human to us. I was rendered silent for most of the film, largely in part to just how fully engrossing Mbatha-Raw was in this role.
A pivotal difference in Bythewood’s film compared to too many others is highlighted when both parties are asked to forgo their relationship in order to be more ambitious in their careers. Typically in standard romantic comedies or romance dramas, women are seen wanting to “have it all” before ultimately giving something up to be with the man of her dreams. Women aren’t allowed to “have it all” without seeming desperate or bossy or clinical. In the case of Beyond the Lights (and interestingly enough, Love & Basketball) its the female protagonist who gets to live her life with a career she loves, on her terms while the male love interest in this case Kaz,is the one who decides that his dream is for now simply being with Noni. This a BIG deal and its not something we often see. For the entirety of the film, Kaz is seen grappling with what he wants compared to what his father wants for him. To succeed, he is given an outline of a very cut and dry career trajectory and its one he’s simply not looking for. He wants to help people, yes, but he doesn’t get a thrill from it like Noni does onstage, performing for thousands.
This was a phenomenal film and its one that dances with gender norms and the exploitation of women in such graceful ways that it never comes across as a PSA. Bythewood has created such a moving film with so little and it’s done with a deft hand and a skillful eye. She knows what looks good and what will pull on the emotions of the viewers. I mentioned it before, but there is no reason why Bythewood shouldn’t be receiving an influx of calls about people wanting her to tell their stories. She’s remarkably talented and has told two of the best love stories on film in the past ten years.