So, in spite of the cheesy, truly craptastic trailers, I went and saw Beyond the Lights this weekend. I truly can't remember the last time I paid to see a movie in the theaters, but I knew I wanted to support this because I wanted to support Gina Prince-Bythewood. I loved Love & Basketball and Disappearing Acts. Secret Life of Bees? Not so much, but you can't win them all.
At any rate, this movie is indeed worth seeing for the following reasons and more:
1. Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Hot off of a notable performance in Belle, Gugu did all of her own singing in this film and basically commanded attention every time she was on screen. Her performance was very strong, turning what could've potentially been cheese-ball moments into opportunities to allow the audience to relate to R&B/Pop singer Noni on a purely emotional level. You understood this girl. You rooted for her. You ached for her. When she looked at Kaz (played by the wondrously hot Nate Parker), you felt why she was so connected to him, why he was the one who was able to see through her carefully constructed layers. And in the emotional scene where she finally confronts her momager, Minnie Driver (who was fantastic), you feel her betrayal, desperation and pain. All in all, Gugu was terrific and this should be the role that solidifies her arrival as a true up and coming contender in Hollywood.
2. Nate Parker. Yes, his abs and biceps are quite Yum-able. But the quiet intensity that he brings the role of Kaz, carefully balancing manly, authoritative strength with the vulnerability and sensitivity sure to make women swoon is really what makes him special. Gugu was so great in her role it would've been easy for Nate to be overshadowed. Instead, he played it perfectly. Kaz was the passionate conscience to Noni's aloof, cool, his level-headedness balancing out her outburst as she struggled to find out who she really was and assert herself in an industry aimed at exploiting her. Kaz's backstory fittingly parallels Noni's in the film (only he has an ambitious father and political goals while Noni has an ambitious mother with an eye on superstardom), and while not as thoroughly executed (this is, after all, Noni's story) it allowed viewers a deeper look into his character. Without Nate's nuanced performance this film probably wouldn't have worked.
3. The subtle examinations of race, music industry dynamics and female empowerment. This easily could've turned into a preachy film about the ills of the music industry and its exploitation of young, naive girls, and to a lesser degree, even racism. And while it definitely showcased the negative, dirty aspects of the business, it allowed the audience to make the final call on how they felt about it, choosing not to shove the perspective down your throat. As Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com pointed out:
“Beyond the Lights” makes unapologetically damning statements about the music industry’s treatment of women, yet it never feels preachy. It strikes a risky, though successful balancing act between being immensely entertaining as a musical feature and making dramatic, important statements about depression, self-worth and female empowerment."
I didn't mention Danny Glover here because honestly, he was sort of a non-factor as Kaz's father. Minnie Driver, as I mentioned, was truly great, turning in a pretty powerful performance that captured all of the elements of a mom who often pushed too far, too hard, but was still grounded by the love she had for her child.
All in all, this is a film worth supporting. Odie Henderson (quoted above) went as far as to compare it to Lady Sings the Blues, and while I definitely wouldn't go that far, it's a great movie that I'd say adequately showcases the talents of all involved and could even serve as great inspiration for today's young girls.