You may have noticed that when I write about films I don’t generally say too much about what they are about. The obvious conclusion is I just don’t want to spoil the movie before people have seen it, and it’s true I like to let people experience the film as it happens, but the main reason I don’t talk too much about the plot is that I actually believe that in the end it doesn’t really matter. Any story can be done well, and any story can be bad; it is the execution that makes or breaks it. Obviously some stories are more intrinsically interesting than others, but without good writing, without a well-chosen cast, and without a director who can capture the subtleties, you aren’t going to enjoy the ride. On the surface Beyond the Lights is the stuff of melodrama, a depressed pop star falls for the cop that saved her life, but in the hands of the writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her two stars, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, it becomes a nuanced exploration of relationships and identity.
In 2000 Gina Prince-Bythewood won the Best First Screenplay Independent Spirit Award for her film Love and Basketball, and in interviews she makes no bones about the fact that writing is difficult. It is difficult for her because she intimately understands the craft of writing, that it takes work, and discipline. “For me it’s about writing what I want to see. So it starts there, and then it’s 55 drafts of making sure the characters feel real.” (Scenarios. 12/4/14) Her films have a natural, lived-in freshness, but those 55 drafts are what allow you to look closer at Beyond the Lights and see a song-like rhyming structure to the film. The two main characters both struggle under the weight of parental expectations, but the symmetry does not feel redundant. It deepens the theme of parents trying to live through their children, and the need parents have for their children to have a better life than they did, even if that life is destructive. Most importantly Prince-Bythewood is a hugely compassionate writer, there are some reprehensible characters in Beyond the Lights but each of them have their motivations, which allow the audience to see that they aren’t monsters. There is nothing haphazard about the script, and remarkably there is nothing forced either.
The film is unapologetically a love story, between Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s pop star Noni Jean and Nate Parker’s Kaz (short for Kazam, his parents thought it sounded African), an L.A. police officer with political aspirations. The chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Parker is palpable, and they feel so natural together that it almost comes as a surprise that none of the dialogue was improvised. Mbatha-Raw deadpanned that when you know there have been 55 drafts you respect what was written, and you find a way to keep it fresh, because every word is there for a reason (BFI Beyond the Lights Q&A 11/18/15). Nate Parker is not well known yet, but his directorial debut The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance in January, and he will definitely be a force both behind and in front of the camera in the upcoming year. He brings a steady decency to the character, whose forthright approach to life offers Noni an alternative to the smoke and mirrors surrounding hers, and he is fantastic, but the film really belongs to Mbatha-Raw.
Beyond the Lights came out in 2014, the same year that Gugu Mbatha-Raw had her first starring role in the period film Belle. These two performances taken individually are impressive, but when looked at together you realize what a talent Mbatha-Raw is. To move from playing an 18th Century English lady to a hypersexualized 21st Century pop star takes incredible range. Her Noni Jean is struggling on many levels, all the while trying to maintain the image of a fantasy girl, who all the men want and all the women want to be. She is struggling under the expectations of her label and her domineering mother (played with steely determination by Minnie Driver). She is struggling to recognize herself under the layers of makeup, fake purple hair and micro-skirts she is expected to wear. Most importantly she is struggling to find anything worth loving about herself. It is this journey to self-acceptance that is the heart of the film, and it is in taking the problems of its heroine seriously that Beyond the Lights ends up being much more than its plot description. There are few cinematic joys equal to a perfectly executed B-movie.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood shoots this with little fanfare, almost nonchalantly, yet I was overwhelmed by the scene’s quiet power. It exists on so many levels, and I responded tearfully to each of them because, by this point, Beyond the Lights had shown me so much of this character’s internal and external struggle that I felt I knew her. – Odie Henderson, RogerEbert.com