“Beyond the Lights” goes above and beyond exceeding any expectations, with a complex storyline and deeply embedded messages of empowerment and metamorphosis.
Anyone who’s listened to a radio or turned a TV lately can tell you sex sells–hello, Kim Kardashian–and popstar Noni Jean (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a successful sex kitten, who just won her first Billboard Award, alongside her misogynistic white rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (played by a villainous Machine Gun Kelly). Success doesn’t bring happiness, however, and Noni makes an attempt on her life, only to be saved by an LAPD officer (Nate Parker) who was assigned to guard her hotel room from being ravaged with groupies. Kaz, a virtual stranger, is the only person who can really see the starlet’s distress, and the two soon develop a blossoming romance, much to the dismay of momager Macy (Minnie Driver). Kaz, who’s also an aspiring politician (which may be more his father’s dream than his own), grapples with having a girlfriend who’s in the spotlight, while Noni struggles to find herself amidst the flashing lights.
While the plot may seem cliche, Love and Basketball writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote a script rich in complexity, that transcends being a romantic drama. Prince-Bythewood’s nuances nod to a number of issues, from the obvious women’s empowerment to mental health in the black community, the way political fundraising is handled, and race relations (Noni is bi-racial; there’s a scene in which her mother breaks down while reflecting on the difficulties of raising a half-black child, and there are two scenes in which Noni’s natural hair plays a key component, including the opening scene). Prince-Bythewood also accurately and unapologetically displays the insidious, soulless side of showbiz and the misogynistic treatment of women in the industry, which, if you didn’t already catch onto with Noni’s sex-doll S&M styling, becomes especially evident when Noni’s label is ready to drop her over her suicide attempt, and her ex rapper boyfriend is allowed to sexually humiliate her on stage during a performance.
Parker and Mbatha-Raw have standout performances, with Mbatha-Raw singing in all her own scenes, effortlessly nailing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” with a melodious, throaty voice, and sailing through other songs requiring rich, intricate vocals. She effortlessly embodies both versions of Noni with a hauntingly good performance. Her and Parker also share sizzling chemistry, with Parker bringing genuine authenticity his role as her lover. Driver is exceedingly convincing in her role as a momager, and it’s very hard for the audience not to hate her–her management borders on tyranny; like most stage moms, it’s not about her child, but her. Kaz’s father, who is a very watered down version of Noni’s mother, is slightly overbearing regarding his son’s political aspirations, but the differences in intention are visible. Machine Gun Kelly is also convincing in his role as an ostentatious, obnoxious rapper.
While the film missed an opportunity to delve deeper into addressing mental health issues (it would have been nice to see Noni seeing a doctor, rather than casually mention she was getting help in a TV interview; mental health is seldom addressed in the urban community, and many people really do not understand that depression is like the flu in the sense that you do need to see a qualified medical professional to help you treat it), the film’s messages and themes were deeply moving. Noni is a fully developed character, and rather than harbor resentment for her celebrity status built on seemingly shameless hyper-sexualization and a cookie-cutter image, Noni is a character that you root for, from beginning to end. Shoutout to our friends at All Def Digital for recommending it to us!
April also enjoyed the scenes where Nate Parker was shirtless, and loved Noni’s purple weave, but that had absolutely nothing to do with the review. Follow her on Twitter at @scarlettsinatra.