Beyond the Lights, opening in theaters Friday, is the third feature film from writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose other works include The Secret Life of Bees (2008), the TV movie Disappearing Acts (2000) and the classic love story Love and Basketball (2000). If the success of Love and Basketball helped propel Prince-Bythewood into the Hollywood stratosphere, along with the careers of Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, then Beyond the Lights will undoubtedly solidify her place in the big leagues.
Prince-Bythewood confirms her status as an architect of the modern-day love story with her latest offering, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni, a rising pop star who is making “face-down, ass-up” music, even though she is much more talented than the industry or society will allow. Nate Parker stars as Kaz, an earnest Los Angeles police officer who sees the woman behind the Rihanna-Nicki Minaj-Katy Perry image who is on the cusp of superstardom but is coming undone in the process.
Kaz wants to be with Noni, despite objections from his father (Danny Glover), who has greater political aspirations for his heroic son. Kaz and Noni come together through difficult circumstances yet stay together because they actually “see” each other in a way that no one else will.
Noni, a biracial beauty who hails from the working-class, South London neighborhood of Brixton, has the musical chops to pull off Nina Simone’s classic song “Blackbird,” but is constantly bullied into following the most common path to stardom in the music industry. That path includes the hypersexualization of women in general, and black women in particular, in an industry that would rather pump out human versions of blow-up dolls who gyrate and Auto-Tune their way up the music charts.
Noni is trapped in a personal and professional lifestyle that does not reflect who she is or wants to be. Add to the mix Macy (Minnie Driver), Noni’s momager, who is pushing Noni beyond her personal limits in order to secure their financial future and produce a “winner” instead of a “runner-up.”
Noni struggles to find her authentic self and a love with Kaz that is real and not fabricated like her relationship with white-hot rapper Kid Culprit (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker), who eventually shows Noni and the world the reality of the music industry.
Instead of coming off as a basic melodrama with the tried-and-true “rise and fall of a superstar” formula, the film is a complex story that challenges the entertainment industry and the psychology of the people behind it. Through high-profile cameos and narrative elements, Prince-Bythewood delivers a self-reflexive critique of the entertainment industry. How is a director able to have a film backed by BET while critiquing the precarious business practices of the iconic network in the actual narrative? That can only happen when the director is as thoughtful and capable as Prince-Bythewood.
While the roles of Noni and Kaz will be a game changer for the careers of Mbatha-Raw and Parker, the sleeper of the film is the soundtrack, most of which is written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash. The soundtrack also boasts the writing talents of legendary songwriter Diane Warren who penned the single “Grateful,” performed by Rita Ora. Mbatha-Raw actually co-wrote some of the songs and actually sings, demonstrating the depth of her talents. Rappers Nicki Minaj and Machine Gun Kelly also appear on the soundtrack.
Like the characters of Noni and Kaz, Beyond the Lights offers much more than what appears on the surface. It is a film about finding out who you are and what you want to be in a world that has already determined who and what you are without ever having met you.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.