Science fact: If you haven’t watched writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights, your life is incomplete. At least, (and let’s be honest here), the part of you that is starving for an excellent romance-drama is, especially in a cinematic era where the genre has become overridden by clichés and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Beyond the Lights follows two starry-eyed lovers who are each stars-in-the-making themselves. At the center lies Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the rising It-Girl in the Hip-Hop music scene from the slums of London with a mother/manager (Minnie Driver) whose survivalist drive is bringing Noni to the edge of not wanting to survive any longer. Enter Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a good-cop/hopeful-political-star who aspires to be a “brother who makes a difference.” The two collide in refreshingly dramatic fashion (dropping the cute from the meet) after Kaz instills a hope in Noni that deters her from following through with a violent suicide attempt. They fall for each other fast thanks to a mutually shared promise that they “see” each other for who they really are and not the stars they are being manufactured into.
By erasing the question as to whether the two will get together or not early in the film (they do), it might be curious for some yet-to-be-BTL-viewers to understand what makes the film so special or even interesting. This is because Prince-Bythewood doesn’t focus on the plotline we expect in romance-dramas (i.e., will the two stars become star-crossed or not), but rather on a person-centered exploration as to what happens when two people—whose identities as “stars” are defined by others rather than themselves—collide. This shifts the over-cooked “will they/won’t they end up together” question into a much more powerful one: Will Noni and Kaz each engage in the self-exploration needed to figure out who they really are and will they still love the other if or when they do?
As if that weren’t compelling enough, Prince-Bythewood interweaves sharp commentary on the music industry and mental health (from a studio exec’s proclamation that “suicide ain’t sexy” to twitter trolls wishing Noni would’ve followed through on her attempt), as well as systemic sexual objectivity of women. This is often accomplished without the main characters having direct conversations about it; for example, when we’re first introduced to Noni as an adult, her clothing consists of leather belts just wide enough to cover her nipples, skin-tight dresses, and literal neck and wrist chains that her stylist unlocks for her. Later, someone claims Noni’s suicide attempt was the result of being dumped by a man, and such a claim is powerful enough to nearly end Noni’s career. We know all of this is wrong and horrible, but no sweeping speech on feminism and objectification is ever made; in this manner, Beyond the Lights speaks loudest through actions and images.
This constant belittling and disempowerment of women, especially Noni, a woman of color, plays a large part of her journey in the film. However, this battle extends outside of the film to the extras which includes a highly sexualized music video from the film, “Masterpiece,” that you can be one of the 2.1 million viewers of on Youtube. The video is spot on in the message; it features disturbing images (see above picture), self-derogatory yet sadly familiar lyrics (“He love the way I bust it, he love the way I f—k”) and spot-on performances by its overtly fictional characters, “Noni Jean” and “Kid Culprit” (the latter played by white rapper Machine Gun Kelly [MGK] of Camila Cabello-“Bad Things” fame). The video ends on Noni’s face, who looks utterly crushed by the sexual exploitation she just endured.
However, the film’s commentary on female objectification seems lost in the Youtube comments section: “I wish Noni were real,” “Same, she’s hot…” “MGK is so hot” “Jesus, the way he [MGK] looks at her [Noni] has me jealous as all hell.” Enter: eye roll. A few Youtubers point out exactly what Prince-Bythewood is highlighting (the shaming, belittling, sexualization, disempowerment of women in “the industry”), but in many ways the clip reaction provides a further example of exactly how normalized sexism is and, relatedly, rape culture. Even more so, it provides another example of how many people will celebrate images of a white man taking power over a woman of color, as Kid Culprit spanks and dry humps Noni on a table throughout the video. This makes Beyond the Lights more than just a story, but also a barometer of awareness in the audience and a barometer of values in ourselves.
While my review has already blown past my word limit (sorry), I can’t conclude it without noting on the incredible performances from all three actors. Nate Parker turns in a fantastic understated performance and Minnie Driver provides depth and dimension to a role that could’ve easily gone the way of the “Wicked Mother.” This is, in my opinion though, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s film—she throws herself into Noni’s shoes completely, resulting in a fully-realized character who feels so real that Youtubers talk about Noni as if she were. Ultimately, Mbatha-Raw and Prince-Bythewood are truly shining stars we don’t deserve.
Watch It When: You’re looking for a complex, heart-warming love story that largely transcends cliché and offers powerful social commentary, female empowerment, and sweeping romance in return.
While You Watch: What is it about Blackbird that sets Noni free?