Title: Beyond the Lights
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood (‘Love & Basketball, ‘The Secret Lives of Bees’)
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver and Danny Glover
People who are thriving in their jobs and have a seemingly promising career ahead of them, as well as admiration and support from those who wish to see them succeed, are often believed to have the most rewarding and fulfilling lives. But when they’re no longer able to deal with the continuous pressure and expectations placed on them, they often unfortunately fail to achieve their goals and dreams. It isn’t until they meet the one person who truly believes in them, no matter what they decide to do, that they find the courage to stand up for their aspirations, and achieve what they truly want. This empowering message is the driving force in the new romantic drama, ‘Beyond the Lights,’ from ‘Love & Basketball’ and ‘The Secret Lives of Bees’ writer-director, Gina Prince-Bythewood.
‘Beyond the Lights’ follows a pre-teen biracial teen, Noni (India Jean-Jacques), as she enters her first talent competition in London, and is awarded second place for singing Nina Simone’s Blackbird. However, Noni’s mother, Macy (Minnie Driver), who’s pushing her daughter to truly succeed at her talent as she struggles to raise her on her own, won’t allow her to keep her trophy, reminding her she won’t achieve her goals if she settles. The drama then moves forward over 15 years, as Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is accepting a Billboard Award, one of her first major industry accolades, in Beverly Hills, before her debut R&B album is even released.
While Macy is now thrilled with her daughter’s thriving achievements, Noni is internally struggling with the overly sexual messages she’s sending to her fans in her music and videos. Feeling as though her mother and the music industry don’t truly understand and support the songs she wants to record and the image she wishes to portray, she attempts to jump off the balcony of her hotel room. Hearing Macy’s screams when she discovers her daughter’s attempt, the L.A. police officer stationed outside her room, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), rushes in and rescues the musician from the ledge. Later that night, Macy and the rest of Noni’s team hold a press conference to insist the incident was just an accident following the singer’s celebration. Kaz, who deeply values honesty, doesn’t support the decision, but agrees to go along with Noni’s request he doesn’t publically reveal what really happened.
A few days later, Noni approaches Kaz to once again thank him for his help, and the two begin to form an attraction towards each other. She slowly begins to reveal that she feels pressured to maintain the sexy image her mother, who also serves as her manager, has created for her. Against the wishes of his father (Danny Glover), who’s a captain at his son’s precinct and is urging him to launch a political career, Kaz starts a romantic relationship with the pop star. After continuous persistence by the paparazzi for interviews and photos, and Noni’s revenge-driven ex-boyfriend, rapper Kid Culprit (played by rapper Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly), who sabotages her anticipated performance at the BET Awards, the pop princess and police officer flee to Mexico. While on their vacation, the two contend with how they want to move forward in their career, and how Noni can recapture her career and true passion for singing.
With the empowering and endearing romantic drama, Prince-Bythewood grippingly chronicled the up-and-coming singer’s struggle with not only her mother and record label, but also herself, to balance a fulfilling personal life with a meaningful and positive music career. Through Noni’s strong will and determination to find success on her own terms, ‘Beyond the Lights’ showcases that people can overcome all economic restraints and societal expectations to achieve their goals and dreams. While the musician has instantly garnered immense fame and recognition from her fans and the music industry for seemingly embracing the sexual image placed on many young female artists, even before the release of her first album, she’s willing to sacrifice her new-found wealth to once again embrace her true, soulful identity.
Prince-Bythewood also passionately emphasized the all-important message of not sacrificing your ideals and goals by turning down studio offers to cast Mbatha-Raw as Noni. Instead of hiring a popular and well-known actress to play the up-and-coming singer, the filmmaker rightfully believed in the abilities of Mbatha-Raw, who had her break-out performance as the title character in this year’s drama, Belle. The actress not only had the soulful prowess needed for the scenes in which Noni performed, but also a clear and enthralling understanding of the character’s need to be seen and appreciated for who she truly is.
Noni’s intensely powerful public persona is captivatingly balanced by Kaz’s grounded and guarded personality. Through his engagingly subtle performance, Parker impressively stressed how his character was properly raised by his father to be respectful and honorable, and strive to be the best person he can be in all aspects of his life. While Kaz does share his father’s aspirations for him to establish a respectable life in politics, and the fact that Noni is living an indulgent pop star lifestyle that’s contrary to his morals, his growing desire to protect her allows him to finally have the courage to test his boundaries and go after what he wants. Even though he meets Noni during a moment of extreme anguish, he still recognizes the good in her. His undoubting and unconditional live allows her to move past her vulnerability, and stand up for what she truly believes in.
The natural ease Parker and Mbatha-Raw effortlessly exhibit during their characters’ developing relationship and determination to overcome their differences was not only a result of Kaz and Noni’s strong attraction to each other, but also through the rehearsal time the writer-director afforded them before they began filming. By working on their characters’ romantic relationship before they began filming, the two brilliantly showcased how Noni is finally able to move past her superficial and convenient relationship with Kid Culprit, which is mainly only used to enhance their respective records and label.
The two actors also emphasized how Noni and Kaz were both determined to prove to their parents, who were constantly driven by their ambitions to have their children professional succeed, that there other things in life besides their careers that are important. Macy was a single teenage mother, who didn’t have the support of her family, when she had Noni, which led to her relentlessly pushing her daughter to best singer she could be. After Kaz’s mother left their family, his father began pushing his son to go further than he ever did in politics, so that he could have a better life. While Noni and Kaz appreciated their parents’ desires to have them succeed, their growing commitment towards each other showcased how they were finally taking control over their own lives.
While ‘Beyond the Lights’ intriguingly showcases the continued sacrifices people who are determined to become recognized for their talents, and the superficial lengths they’ll go to in order to become famous, Prince-Bythewood’s ambitious drama more powerfully emphasizes the importance of people truly embracing who they really are. Although Kaz and Noni have drastically different careers and lifestyles, with the officer vowing to protect those in need of help and the singer thriving on the attention she receives from her fans, the two truly understand the need to be appreciated for who they truly are. The two grippingly testing the odds and believably building a strong connection was mainly based on the ease and natural connection between Parker and Mbatha-Raw, which helped make the romance-driven film truly engaging and rewarding.
Written by: Karen Benardello