“It’s not my business what you had with her, and now I see that you’re not free of her. And it was foolish to compete with her, but my fractured heart cries ‘Choose Me'”. ~ Noni JeanIn this media obsessed society we are constantly bombarded with images of celebrities. We have become constant voyeurs, looking from the outside in. We form our opinions about celeb lives from tabloids and photographs, never truly knowing what it is that we are judging or praising. Gina Prince- Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights gives us a rare and intricate look at the life of a fast-rising star, from the inside out.
Prince-Bythewood’s third feature film follows, Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha- Raw) a young entertainer who is on a fast track to major fame, but who is suffocating internally. Mega-sexualized, overworked and bitterly unhappy, Noni has become a puppet, controlled by her label and her mother/manager, Macy (Minnie Driver). Nauseated by the stage-show that has become her life, Noni decides to jump from the balcony of her hotel room.
Kaz (Nate Parker) is the police officer assigned to Noni the evening she attempts suicide. Though he’s able to talk her out of leaping to her death, Naz is disgusted by the circus and lies that follow the incident. (He’s a true boy scout at heart.) Unwilling to be sucked into Noni’s circus, Kaz attempts to walk away. Despite his efforts, their connection crackles and ignites.
Noni is drawn to Kaz’s quiet, damn near broody nature.(Parker is perfect in the role. He’s constantly watching, quietly observing, taking her all in.) Likewise, Kaz is intrigued by Noni’s spirit. She’s hidden somewhere behind the image that she presents to the world.
The film is breathtaking because of the exquisite performances. So often romantic dramas fall into the realm of corny.(And this is from a sappy girl who appreciates a bit of corniness.) Few films, those like Love Jones (1997) and The Notebook (2004) speak universally to audiences about love. The honesty in those films is what connects us. Mbatha-Raw and Parker’s performances are so electric that they remain believable throughout the entire film. Their characters become more of themselves as their connection deepens. Prince-Bythewood made the decision to strip Noni bare both mentally and physically. As the film progresses the layers of makeup, hair and costuming are peeled away until Mbatha-Raw’s bare face is left staring wide-eyed at us.
Kaz becomes more himself as well, perhaps in ways that he least expected to. Often it’s the paths that we so rigidly insist on following that are holding us back from our densities. (I really could wax poetic about how delicious Nate Parker looked in this film, but that’s neither here nor there…)
|The man doesn’t even have any facial hair and I’m STILL here for it! (Y’all know my disgust for lack of facial hair.)
Another standout performance in the film is Minnie Driver as Noni’s mother, Macy Jean. A shrewd woman, she seems to value Noni’s image over her well-being. The beauty in the role is that Prince-Bythewood refrains from making Macy completely villainous. She has layers and complexities just like anyone else.
The film is extremely contemporary, it’s very much a romance of this moment. It does not shy away from issues of mental health, race, class, celebrity culture and sex. I also really enjoyed the equality dynamic amongst the pair in terms of their careers and ambitions. (Don’t nobody want a lazy ass partner.)
Beyond the Lights
is lovely. Arguably better than Prince-Bythewood’s first feature Love & Basketball
(2001). (I’m sure there will be a thousand debates about this.) The performances are outstanding, the music is entertaining and the chemistry is extremely sexy. (Did I mention Nate Parker?!! Gugu is also stunning and you should check her out in Belle
if you have not seen it.) I know one thing, I shall never view plane takeoffs the same (surfbort). I’d even go out on a limb and say that men will enjoy the film as much as women.
Go head on Ms. Prince-Bythewood, continue to make them tell your stories! I’m so here for Black women directing mainstream films. (Ava DuVernay’s Selma is up next.)
Beyond the Lights is in theaters November 14. (Take your boo, your mama and them. Or just take yourself, you’re worth the date.)
xoxoxo Chocolate Girl in the City xoxoxoxox
PS. Nate Parker