Beyond the Lights, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a young singer on the verge of stardom and Nate Parker as a cop that saves her, was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Beyond the Lights is a music industry critique mixed with a female/personal empowerment message to be true to yourself. Noni (Mbatha-Raw), a singer on the verge on stardom, decides to commit suicide and the policeman assigned to protect her for the night (Parker) saves her. From there, the film uses a lot of thematic symbolism as we see both characters journey from the person they have become at the behest of their parents to the person they are. The film is entertaining and explores personal identity, but it feels like it tells Noni’s story from the point of view of Kaz, the policeman. As their relationship develops from him saving her from the balcony, we basically see their relationship turn romantic, but only from the perspective of Kaz, on the outside, looking at Noni; a stranger looking into her world. It’s through their relationship that Noni is able to find herself, making her out to not be the owner of her own story.
The film starts with Noni as a highly sexualized singer. Before you realize the direction the film is going in, it is surprisingly objectifying. Everything about Noni’s singing career is based on using her sexuality, not her voice. As the film progresses, you see that Prince-Bythewood started Noni in that place to give her somewhere to grow from and as part of her music industry critique, but that growth takes a long time, leaving Mbatha-Raw to spend the majority of the film half-dressed. Another issue is that in a film written by a woman, the overall cast is still heavily tipped towards male characters. The only female characters, even including the characters that only have a few lines, are Noni, her mother, played by Minnie Driver, and a hair stylist that appears very briefly.
Despite some of these problems, the film works. I loved the ending. It was somewhat predictable, but took a common trope and turned it around. There is also a point in the film where Noni physically transforms herself as part of her personal growth, and the scene is visually moving as it literally shows her taking off her “image”, leaving her bare-faced, but strong as she has finally found herself.
Something else that stood out in a progressive way was that Noni’s mother is white and she is black, but this is never mentioned during the film. Race, in fact, is never brought up or discussed. The only point that is even sort of comes up is the opening scene, and it’s more subtext. Prince-Bythewood wrote a script that was has a diverse cast while never having to point it out, which shows progress.
The film has a few flaws in its plot progression, but is an overall good film and worth watching. Both Mbatha-Raw and Parker give great performances, as well as Driver, who plays Noni’s manager/momager, and is the one to push her into the entertainment business. The main songs from the film, both Nina Simone’s “Blackbird”, which becomes Noni personal theme song, and the title track, “Beyond the Lights”, are both great songs and Mbatha-Raw gives an amazing performance singing them.
Rating *** See it
Follow @Music_IntheDark on Twitter