Movie Review - Beyond the Lights
The first is a fortunate and unfortunate result of racism. Being a black person or a person of color in a predominantly white society, that person is or can feel really disadvantaged. To achieve success in anything, that black person may feel the need to be number one or better than everyone else around them, especially the white people. There's nothing wrong with being an overachiever but it can go too far as it does for Prince-Bythewood's main character, particularly as seen through her mother's eyes.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw who made a splash in the critical community earlier in the year when she starred in the British film Belle stars here as Noni Jean, a young singer whose unseen father is black and whose mother is white. Minnie Driver plays Macy, the single mom of this biracial child who is struggling and dealing with not only poverty but racism issues as well. In a talent contest in south London, Macy makes Noni feel not only bad about not coming in first but also really terrible.
The harsh disapproval of Noni's mother, a white woman, parallels the harsh disapproval of all white people looking down on black people. Some black people desperately want the acceptance of white people because they have all the power and authority, as Noni desperately wants the acceptance of Macy, her mother. Taken to extremes, this would have a detriment to anyone's psyche. The burden, the pressure and the lack of self-worth would weigh negatively.
The second thing that Prince-Bythewood attacks here is the idea of sexuality as depicted in media, especially black women in rap music videos. As a black woman in that culture, there is an image or look that is expected, and even to an extent, there is a behavior that is expected. All women are either depicted as victims or vixens, but black women have a particular history because of rap videos and how they came to be portrayed.
Prince-Bythewood puts that portrayal right into the forefront and then proceeds to deconstruct it brilliantly. Outside of rap music, black women have been better represented. Noni's first song that she sings is "Blackbird" by Nina Simone. Noni is almost a dimunitive of Nina Simone who was her own woman who didn't conform to stereotypes. Even Chaka Khan who makes a cameo here is her own woman, but when Chaka is seen, Noni is already deeply immersed in rap music, which is mostly guilty of using the women-are-only-sexual-objects stereotype. Noni herself is only a sexual object at the beginning.
Along with being a sex object, there are other subtle aspects about the black female image that Prince-Bythewood deconstructs. It's exemplified and bookended in this film with how Noni's hair is addressed. Prince-Blythewood's message of be-who-you-are-with-no-pretenses might be simple and hackneyed, but rendered here it's powerful. It helps that the two leads are great and have amazing chemistry.
Nate Parker is the other lead. Parker co-stars as Kaz Nicol, a police officer with political aspirations. He's a person who stands in the shadow of those who stand in the spotlight. Despite a campaign to be elected to office, he's not seeking fame, but he's watched and is watching people who are, so he's aware of the pitfalls and processes. He becomes like a grounding force for Noni, or at least a reminder of her emotional roots.
Yet, when it comes to the first issue that Prince-Bythewood attacks, Kaz is dealing with the same thing as Noni. It's an issue that's echoed in the recent Dear White People, but Dennis Haysbert is replaced here with Danny Glover as the parental figure pushing his child to be more or be better.
The romance is not too mushy. Despite the situation, the movie feels incredibly grounded. There are so many real-world cameos from Gayle King to Don Lemon that gives it such authenticity. There's also a wealth of great supporting characters like Benito Martinez (The Shield and Sons of Anarchy), Tyler Christopher (General Hospital and Into the West), Darryl Stephens (Noah's Arc and DTLA) and rapper MGK. The film is also incredibly beautiful. Prince-Bythewood directs a love scene that is tastefully sensual and evocative, utilizing light and color in such eye-popping ways.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, language and thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.