We all have our little indulgences; things we consume, knowing that they either have no value or are harmful to us in some way. Welcome to the 21st century, where the complete nature of entertainment has shifted less on the things that the artists produce, and more on the way they lead their personal lives. This widespread celebrity worship syndrome has evolved from being obsessed about a celebrity’s life, to making a show about a celebrity’s life, and even to the point of making a show to create a new form of “celebrity.” We know how toxic these shows are, and how bad they are, but like a triple cheeseburger with extra bacon, we eat it and worry about feeling gross about it later. We’ve heard all this grandstanding before, but that hasn’t changed us one bit. Beyond the Lights is like eating that guilty-pleasure cheeseburger. You’ve had it before, but regardless of your familiarity with it, you know you’ll be having another one in the future. It’s nourishing to a point, and sometimes it’s a little overdone, but the main reason you have it is for the star of the sandwich: the bacon. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is our bacon.
Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is your typical female artist on the cusp of super-stardom. She’s playing a character in her own life, surrounded by the soap opera melodrama of the music industry, reinforced by her mother and manager Macy. As Noni’s name would suggest, she is suppose to be the modern day representation of Norma Jean, more widely known as Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Noni attempted to end her life and stop the charade she was forced to live with every day, despite having just won a Billboard artist award before even releasing an album of her own. She was saved by on-duty cop Kaz (Nate Parker) after trying to jump off the balcony of her hotel room. The film then follows the unlikely love story between boy scout Kaz and the undefined Noni. Going past the drama, Noni attempts to find her own identity and discover who she is as a person rather than playing the sexualized character she was pushed into playing to gain notoriety. Sometimes that involves starting over completely and cutting ties, even those connected by blood.
Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) gives us a sweet, charming, and sometimes cheesy and improbable love story. While this story may seem like it’s at the forefront, I want to believe it’s only secondary to the social commentary depicting the treatment of women in the entertainment industry. Yes, we’ve all heard these cautionary tales before and have witnessed the systematic subjugation of women in these industries, but for some reason nothing has changed to improve it. Prince-Bythewood wants to remind us that misogyny, objectification, double standards and forced over-sexualization for fame don’t only exist and are perpetuated by the hip-hop/R&B music scene, but also by the ravenous media outlets. We also see how it is ingrained and sustained by the people who are suppose to have our best interests in mind. This isn’t a recent develop or comes as some sort of revelatory idea, but it is something that bears repeating, and more than that, demands to be changed.
We’ve seen a similar arrangement in a film before, although it was much less about commentary and more about cynosure. The 1992 film The Bodyguard had a similar set-up, love story, and even scattering of musical performances throughout, but aside from the social commentary, they differ at one major point: Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I’ve always been a huge Whitney Houston fan, and it is undeniable how musically talented she was, and while The Bodyguard had several moments where she gave dynamic performances, Mbatha-Raw delivers the same exhilaration throughout this entire film. I’ve unknowingly been a great fan of hers, watching her in BBC TV shows like MI-5 and Doctor Who, but it wasn’t until I saw her in Belle earlier this year did I realize what a tour de force she could be. If I had any doubts before, Beyond the Lights erased them with her effortless magnetism and visceral acting. This film is kept together (in spite of its cut-and-dry love story) by performances, including the great Minnie Driver and Mbatha-Raw’s romantic counterpart, Nate Parker.
Beyond the Lights shines the social spotlight not only on the many injustices women in the entertainment industry face, but also on how little has been done to curb the problem despite it being common knowledge to many of us. This commonplace idea is illuminated and brought to life by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s incandescent performance, making her the true star of this film. With two stunning performances this year alone, Mbatha-Raw is a star to watch. No telescope necessary.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★(8/10 stars)
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