There is something so appealing about the idea of stardom. Everyone has fantasized about the glitz and glamour of fame, of fans screaming your name and begging for your signature on a photograph. While it’s satisfying to live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous, oftentimes what you see on the surface is not always what you get on the inside. For as long as there have been films about fame, there have been films about the intense pressures of stardom.
One of the best tales of this pressure and how easily one can crack underneath it is the 2014 film Beyond the Lights, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. She is most famously known for her previous films, the romantic drama Love & Basketball, and The Secret Life of Bees. One thing I really admire about Gina Prince-Bythewood is the way she writes women and their relationships with both men and other women, All of her characters feel so real and relatable, and as a result each film is a positive viewing experience. One thing about Beyond the Lights that I like in particular is how alongside writer/director Prince-Bythewood, the director of photography, editor, production designer, and costume designer were all women.
Beyond the Lights opens in South London in the late eighties, as a young girl named Noni, sings the Nina Simone song “Blackbird” at her school’s talent competition. It is clear that Noni has an amazing voice, and despite her clear talent, she wins the runner up trophy. In the scene that follows, her mother (played by Minnie Driver) tells her to throw the trophy to the ground. Do you want to be a winner, she asks, or do you want to be a runner-up?
This one line of dialogue sets the rest of the movie in motion. When we next see Noni years later, she is a rising superstar, guest starring in a hyper-sexualized music video with her debut album about to drop. We see suggestive magazine covers of Noni in highly revealing outfits, but from the look on her face it’s clear that this depiction greatly troubles her. English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw broke out stateside last year with her standout performances in both this film and the period drama Belle. Here, Mbatha-Raw does great work portraying the glamorous lifestyle in front of the cameras that we all wish we had, while simultaneously revealing just how troubled the constant exposure, pressure, and sexualization have left her. The whole world sees her as a sex object, and her own mother sees her as nothing more than a moneymaker. On the eve of her success, Noni attempts suicide, only to be saved by a police officer on duty. As she holds onto his hand for dear life, the officer, Kaz, repeats over and over that he sees her for who she really is.
Kaz, played by an incredibly hunky Nate Parker, is also under pressure. An aspiring politician under the controlling thumb of his father, Kaz finds himself drawn to Noni, and vice-versa, the two of them seeking solace from the outside world in each other. If we pretend to be something that isn’t true to ourselves in order to please others, can we really let someone else in? This film really gets the relationship between its two leads right; it never once feels forced, and Bythewood’s direction, along with the warmly lit close-up shots in their sequences, created by director of photography Tami Reiker, almost imitate the warm and fuzzy feeling of falling in love.
As warm and romantic as it is, Beyond the Lights also isn’t afraid to talk about depression in an honest way. Part of what makes Mbatha-Raw so stunning to watch here is the way she constructs Noni’s public “persona”. Every smile is carefully calculated and played up for the cameras and press, which makes her breakdown and subsequent transformation all the more powerful. I suggest checking out the other work in her filmography. She shines in every role she’s given.
Ultimately, Beyond the Lights is a winning film about being true to yourself and following your dreams (and your heart). There is so much that I wanted to touch on in this column, but ultimately I think best way to watch this film is let it creep up on you and surprise you. I can’t recommend it higher.
You can stream Beyond the Lights on Netflix right now. It is also available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.
Other films by women out now (in theaters):
Meet the Patels (co-directed by Geeta Patel, playing at the AMC Mayfair)
Other films by women out now (on demand and DVD):
Mississippi Grind (co-directed by Anna Boden, available to rent on iTunes)
The Wolfpack (dir. Crystal Moselle, on DVD now)
Meet Me in Montenegro (co-directed by Linnea Saasen, available to rent on iTunes)