1. Woman Led Story by Woman Writer-Director
This combination does not always yield extraordinary results, but with Beyond The Lights, Noni is well served by the words and the actual lens through which these words are supported visually. Noni’s character is flawed, but in the best way possible: the complex, human way that women on film usually have to trade for needy and pathetic, because those attributes are projected onto them by male writers. Noni is suicidal, but not a victim. She is conflicted, but not vapid. She is confined by the trappings of the success she helped design, but only temporarily. And when it comes to love, she is both assertive and vulnerable, just like many successful women in the public eye. This is all deftly written by Gina Prince-Bythewood–and because of the writing, I was riveted to the screen.
Well, and also because Gugu Mbatha-Raw turns in a searing, sensual performance and looks damn amazing, be she weaved up in lavender tresses (shouts to hair stylist Kimberly Kimble @KimbleHairCare) or curled up in everyday sweats. Did I mention this film passes the Bechtel test? Watch for it. That could be Reason #6…
2. Music You Can Believe
So often films where music is integral to the story but not central to it end up with music that sounds or feels like an afterthought. You know, that movie where the musical choices were left to a music supervisor at the post production stage—or concocted to serve one label group’s roster. Beyond The Lights is a dramatic love story about a music star, but this isn’t a music film per se. Fortunately, this was not used as an excuse to infuse the film with subpar music, or the obvious chart-topping songs of the moment. The-Dream (the producer behind “Single Ladies” among other smash hits) and Taura Stinson (lyricist for Black Nativity and Rio 2) were on board for this project, and the original songs are spot on in the urban pop ear candy department. The music supervision is also fantastic. The use of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” as both foreshadowing and mirror to Noni’s personal struggle (and that of her mother, brought to life fiercely by Minnie Driver) is resonant beyond the capacity of dialogue.
3. Black On Black Love
American audiences rarely get to experience two gorgeous Black people flirting, courting or riding the waves of the uncertainty of a new relationship without there being some insane level of distrust, violence or dysfunction in the foreground. Thank God for Kaz and Noni, because they represent the tension and the triumph of Black love, free from stereotype and constant mortal danger. Both are gainfully employed; both have strong parental figures. Both have their own goals and dreams, and both are given the freedom to laugh and love on screen. This is rare gold in Hollywood.
4. Nate Parker
This man has had his star turn coming for a long time. After decent sized ensemble roles in The Great Debaters and Red Tails, Beyond The Lights is the role I was waiting to see him in. Nate in a police officer’s uniform? Check. Nate’s upper torso on the beaches of Mexico? Check. Nate’s protective gaze burning into that of his love interest? Chiggy check. Look: generally speaking (and certainly speaking for myself), Black women revel in the protection, in the adoration of the Black man. This makes us no less capable or progressive, mind you. (We’re complex, remember?)To be a sista watching this unfold on screen is to be honored, to be made visible and affirmed as priceless. The man is unequivocally fine. Solid chops. Solid frame. Getchu some here because in real life, he’s married with three kids. Which brings me to…
5. Black Male Vulnerability In Rare Form
Kaz’s father is played by veteran actor Danny Glover. Theirs is a great relationship where they speak to one another openly and honestly. Sure, the elder has a desire to live out his unfulfilled dreams through his son, but the way this subplot gets resolved gives us a chance to see a father and son who respect one another, even as they disagree. No, they aren’t crying together. But that’s not the only way to allow men to be vulnerable on screen, especially with other men. Simply telling the truth without posturing? Yes. More, please!
Has to go to producer Stephanie Allain (Dear White People, Hustle & Flow) editor Terilyn A. Shropshire (Prince-Bythewood’s go-to editor for Secret Life of Bees and Love & Basketball), and casting director Aisha Coley (Selma, Akeelah and The Bee)–all African American women whose work on this film bring a level of commitment to excellence, a level of unstoppable perseverance—that if you read credits, follow film, or are an indie filmmaker, you can actually feel as you watch this film. These film veterans are artists and executives who consistently deliver stellar work, despite all the barbs the studio system throws at women and people of color. Diversity in Hollywood is more than seeing diverse people in front of the camera; when you support Beyond The Lights, you support them—and support diversity behind it as well.
Have you seen it at a screening or festival? Or seen it already on its opening weekend? Without spoilers, share your thoughts in the comment section! And post your thoughts directly to me @putyrdreams1st.