When was the last time you saw an earnest, honest-to-god romance that wasn’t drippy, Nicholas Sparks fare? It’s a film species that seems to be approaching extinction. And it certainly doesn’t help that people are retroactively dumping over some of the best films of the genre, like The English Patient. Thankfully, writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood, who brought us one of the best romances of this century, Love and Basketball, can dependably deliver the goods. And that’s exactly what she’s done in her charming, if flawed, new film Beyond The Lights.
The film opens in South London in 1998. We meet Noni as a young pre-pubescent girl (India Jean-Jacques); her mother is frantically trying to get her hair braided in time for a local talent competition. She’s to sing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” and she does it with such innocent abandon, in a wide close-up, that she wins first-runner up. Her white mother (Minnie Driver), however, thinks she’s been robbed of first prize — Noni is the only black girl in the competition, and there’s a suggestion that this might be why she didn’t win. After insisting that Noni leave the trophy behind, which she does almost in tears, we fast forward to the present where Noni is now a successful hip hop star in her twenties, and her mom is still stage-managing her career.
We first see the grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a chart-topping music video, scantily clad, singing misogynistic and degrading lyrics, and doing sexually suggestive dances with her co-artist, the white rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly). She’s also wearing a weave instead of her natural curls. She’s come a long way from sweetly singing Simone, and we wonder what happened to the girl who needed to sing her heart out. Has the music industry corrupted her into a shallow, vain version of her former self?
Noni is certainly not comfortable with her choices, which is what leads her one night to attempt suicide from her hotel balcony, when a handsome young cop, Kaz (Nate Parker), acting as her body guard, stops her and saves her life. She’s screaming that nobody sees her – nobody can see beyond the lights – and it’s only by looking her in the eye and assuring her, that he, a stranger, can see her clearly, that she allows herself to be rescued.
It’s this good deed that will earn Kaz the nickname of “Officer Hero” and spark Noni’s romantic interest. Because Noni insists on thanking him publicly – leaving out the suicide bit – he suddenly finds himself in the spotlight. And as it turns out, he’d always planned to be there, only in politics, and his father (Danny Glover) and his advisor see this newfound fame as an opportunity to launch his political career. But he’s intrigued by Noni – the two play a bit of a cat-and-mouse flirtation game, chasing after one another in turns – and his interest in spending time with her keeps his name in the papers. It’s not the right kind of publicity. He may be forced to choose between his heart and his ambition — but is the ambition even his or the ambition others have for him?
Like the characters in Dear White People, both Noni and Kaz are coping with what it means to be their true, authentic self. But unlike in Dear White People, the answers are simple and obvious, and it’s just societal pressures that make maintaining integrity – or even knowing what that is – difficult. The music industry has warped Noni into someone unrecognizable — someone content to sing misogynistic lyrics, disrobe for the magazine covers, and date a creepy white guy for the publicity. She has to be willing to risk her comfortable success to find comfort in her own skin. Similarly, Kaz is a more straightforward version of Troy from Dear White People: are the political aspirations really his or his family’s? And is being in the spotlight, projecting a certain image of black advancement, something that he really wants, even if he’s the right kind of person for the job?
It’s in the privacy of their own homes – or even a trip to Mexico – where they find each other. Their romance shows the power love has to change you. Kaz gives Noni the strength to be herself – to take off the fake nails, the makeup, and the weave – and to relish in the anonymity of dressing like a normal person in jeans and a tank top. Of course, this being Gugu Mbatha-Raw, she’s still positively stunning with no makeup and no glamour. And as Kaz watches Noni grow into herself, she forces him to confront his own career choices, to separate what’s really important to him from what others want for him.
Prince-Blythewood understands that romance is all about the connection forged between two people, so she wisely shoots the majority of Kaz and Noni’s scenes together in two-shots. Whether it’s sitting on the couch of her home, listening to her hit as she tries to turn it off in embarrassment, or pouring over her box of lyrics on the floor of her bedroom, or sitting in his car at the airport eating fried chicken, these are two people sharing time and space. We’re always watching what’s unfolding between them, not just how things are for each of them separately.
But my goodness, what Gugu Mbatha-Raw can do with a closeup! This is an actress headed for greatness. Throughout the film, and especially when Noni is performing, Prince-Blythewood trains her camera on Mbatha-Raw’s face for minutes at a time, without cuts. She can go through a whole range of emotions in the span of just a few seconds, bringing you with her completely on the journey. Mbatha-Raw’s Noni also goes through a gradual but stunning transformation from combative but vulnerable (while wearing very little), to strong and self-possessed (when dressed more conservatively), achieved only through allowing herself to be vulnerable.
Like Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn in Inside Llewyn Davis, Noni’s voice is Mbatha-Raw’s voice — is there anything she can’t do? She checked off period acting and costume dramas earlier this year with Belle, and now she’s got singer, dancer, and modern woman in Beyond the Lights. Here’s hoping she continues to get meaty, starring roles — I’m already kicking myself for having missed her as Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet.