Director/Screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last year, I participated in one of group blog Wonders in the Dark’s legendary countdowns, which poll numerous cinephiles on what they consider to be the best films in a given genre or category. This countdown involved romance films, the definition of which was left up to each voter. Film fans will quibble as they always do about what is included and what is missing, but I think the voters did a pretty good job of choosing a wide array of films with a romantic bent, from cartoon features like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and WALL-E (2008) and warped relationships in the noir films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), to gay love in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) and eternal love in Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). I was happy to see some newer films on the list, but dismayed that most of them were made by indie and foreign directors. It seems that Hollywood’s formerly large portfolio of adult romances has been pushed out of the way by adolescent and dysfunctional relationships, as well as period pieces made more romantic by their elegantly arcane settings.
That’s why Beyond the Lights hit me like a ton of bricks. The central pair in this contemporary romance, a Rihanna-style pop star and a policeman with political aspirations, are in their 20s, accomplished, and self-aware. They don’t meet anywhere near cute, and they don’t give up everything just to be together. They actually have lives that include, but don’t revolve around each other, and director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood lets us see those lives. Wow, imagine that!
The film opens in Brixton, London’s sketchy multicultural neighborhood. We meet Noni as a 10-year-old child (India Jean-Jacques) being dragged into a hair salon by her mother Macy (Minnie Driver). Macy successfully begs the beautician, Felicia (Deidrie Henry), who is closing for the day, to give her a few tips so that she can bring Noni’s unruly hair into line for an important talent competition the next day. The film cuts to the competition, where we see a tap dancer whirl around the stage before Noni takes her turn. She offers a soulful, a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” and comes in second, behind the dancer. Macy drags Noni off the stage in a rage and forces her to throw her trophy away. Noni learns the hard way that winning is the only option.
The film fast-forwards to the present in which a grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) no longer worries about her nappy hair or being a runner-up. She’s a popular singer who works a sleek, purple weave and fuck-me clothing and gestures, and carries on an affair of convenience with rapper and musical collaborator Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly). The duo’s latest single wins a Grammy, and as Noni drives off with some friends in a limo, the teetotaler uncharacteristically swills some champagne straight from the bottle. When she returns to her hotel room to change clothes for an after-party, she tells Kazan (Nate Parker), the moonlighting cop guarding her door, not to let anyone in. Wondering why her daughter is taking so long to emerge, Macy orders Kaz to open the door. They find Noni sitting precariously on the balcony railing, crying that “nobody sees me.” She pushes off, but Kaz catches her wrist and hauls her back up with the words “I see you” on his lips. The media are abuzz with reports of her suicide attempt, witnessed by people on the ground. Forced into a position of damage control, Noni goes with the cover story that she was intoxicated and slipped. Kaz, cast as a hero, believes in telling the truth, but compromises his principles to support her cover story. He wants to keep his distance from Noni, but she pursues him and the two commence a serious romance.
What sets Beyond the Lights apart from other mainstream romances—and despite the largely black cast, this film maintains an assured classic structure—is the attention to the details of the lovers’ lives and the way such now-familiar components of popular culture as paparazzi, scandal-mongering, hero worship, and image creation actually affect those who work in the public eye. Noni’s suicide attempt could have signaled just another cliché of the poor little rich girl or tragic star, but Prince-Bythewood smartly let us see the soul of this person in the opening scenes, drawn to jazz and self-expression but pushed by an ambitious mother to pursue fame and fortune. This strategy invests the audience with a stake in her rescue and recovery, as well as lifts the story out of the jaws of superficial melodrama.
Kaz’s story is just as interesting. The son of a retired cop (Danny Glover), Kaz is following in his father’s footsteps as part of their joint plan to launch him into politics. His initial courting of some influential religious leaders is rocky, as they question him about his youth and then upbraid him for seeming to compare himself to another youthful mover and shaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annoyed by their retreat behind the sacred cow of King, Kaz merely asks them to know him by his deeds. He is warned that Noni might not be good for his image, even though he has gotten some much-needed name recognition from the press conference at which she thanked him for saving her. But his dedication to honesty might be a larger hindrance to him in the long run.
Ultimately, what makes this story so compelling and this love match so right is the journey toward authenticity Noni and Kaz are on. Kaz tells Noni that he loves Nina Simone, unwittingly signaling to her that he can understand her real self, and self-consciously says that his parents named him Kazan because they thought it sounded African, a sly joke on an older generation that looked to a continent many of them had never seen for their authenticity. He refuses to consider himself her boyfriend until she breaks up with Kid Culprit, giving her the courage to do just that and try to jettison her false, hypersexual image on stage. The new relationship kicks into high gear when they drive across the border to Mexico for a weekend idyll. Noni pulls off her fake fingernails, pulls out her weave, and the pair visits an open-air market. Kaz refuses to give her some cash for an ID bracelet, forcing Noni to barter her diamond earrings for it. In a moment in which Noni owns her stardom as part of who she is, she gives Kaz a “really?” look when he asks her if the diamonds are real.
Unfortunately, the getaway is ruined when Noni’s mother and the paparazzi find her after a fan videos her singing a very moving version of “Blackbird” at a karaoke bar and posts it on YouTube. Whisked back into the fray of celebrity, Noni refuses to chuck it all because it makes Kaz uncomfortable to be under a microscope. She wants to have a world stage to say what she wants to say as a singer and songwriter and isn’t ready to cash in her chips based on the wants and needs of a man. When Noni and Macy play hardball with her record company to include a couple of songs Noni wrote on her new album, which will cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in rerecording and production fees, the price is dropping Kaz. After a quick beat, Noni simply and unemotionally says, “OK.”
Prince-Bythewood offers a wonderfully intimate look at Noni and Macy’s relationship. Macy tells a story Noni hasn’t heard before. Macy was abandoned by Noni’s black father and rejected by her family and she ended up—infuriatingly—just as they predicted: broke in a Brixton tenement. A passage out opened when a very young Noni opened her lungs to sing along to a recording of “Blackbird.” Macy’s actions become much more understandable, even forgivable, when put in context, but she just can’t seem to recognize Noni as a person—a common affliction of parents everywhere. In the end, both Noni and Kaz have to separate their own dreams from those of their parents if they are to give birth to their true, adult selves.
I believed almost every minute of this film, with only a few false notes sounded mainly to move the action forward. The portrayal of the music industry, with its power plays, image churning, and negotiating, seemed real without being the caricature of villainy we often see in feature films. Noni and Kaz’s relationship develops slowly to the random rhythms of life, not on the predictable waves of plot. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t feel the need to show skin when her characters have sex—indeed, this welcome change of pace offers insight into what Noni is fleeing, revealed in a very professionally shot music video at the beginning of the film that is little more than a visual sexual assault. I liked how full and teeming the film was—it was a nice touch to have the kindly hair stylist return as a member of Noni’s staff. Even the concertgoers seemed to get just enough camera time to make them seem like more than extras.
Most especially, I loved Mbatha-Raw, who with her appearances in the highly regarded film Belle and this one, is having quite a year. She adopts a different spine for the Noni she presents to the world and the one she has kept under wraps, and melds the two believably through the course of the film. Her rendition of “Blackbird,” sung through tears, is inspired and beautiful. Her dignity is kept intact by a sympathetic director and matched by a dignified love interest who learns that his chosen path doesn’t really fit his character. Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a wonderful chemistry, which Prince-Bythewood captures in some beautifully paced and rendered scenes. Beyond the Lights may be optimistic about the power of the truth, but this large and talented creative team have made a believer out of me.