I ran us a movie last night that was one of the very best recent films Charles and I have seen lately: Beyond the Lights, whose generic title (it was originally supposed to be called Blackbird, after the depressing Nina Simone song that provides the inspiration for its central character, but a number of other movies coming out just then were also called Blackbird and so it got changed) masks a brilliant film, written and directed by Black woman director Gina Prince-Bythewood. In some ways its basic situation is reminiscent of The Bodyguard — aspiring superstar Noni Rae (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who deserves a huge career despite her mouthful of a name) attempts suicide following a performance at the Billboard music awards and is saved by the police officer assigned to provide her security that night, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker); they fall in love but have an uncertain relationship due to the clashes between their relative positions in the social order — but Prince-Bythewood provides far more complex, rounded characters than Bodyguard writer Lawrence Kasdan did, and as a director she’s far above Mick Jackson’s league. (Jackson is one of quite a number of recent directors of whom I’ve joked, “He thinks he’s Alfred Hitchcock … and isn’t.”) The film begins in London’s impoverished Brixton district in 1999, when Noni (played as a child by India Jean-Jacques) enters a local talent contest singing an a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and places second to a white girl who tap-dances. Noni’s mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver, playing the role with the same grim determination as she played the mother of a disabled kid in the recent, and regrettably short-lived, ABC-TV series Speechless) makes Noni throw away the trophy she won that night, saying, “Do you want to be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?” Then Prince-Bythewood gives us a poignant shot of a wing off the trophy, broken off and laying in the street, before she cuts to the present (or at least the 2014 present, when this film was made).
Though she hasn’t released an album of her own yet, Noni has already become a star thanks to her guest appearance on three rap songs by a white British rapper named Kid Culprit (played by a real white British rapper who calls himself “Machine Gun Kelly,” after the 1930’s gangster — you see why I think most rap is immoral and evil? — though he’s billed in the credits of this film with his real name, Richard Colson Baker), but she’s resentful that instead of showcasing her voice, the songs she’s recorded and especially the videos she’s shot for them have basically turned her into a sex object. We see one of these, for a song called “Masterpiece” (on which, as she does through most of the film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her own singing), which consists mostly of her wearing a bare-minimum skin-tight outfit, spreading her legs and virtually assaulting the camera with her crotch — one gets the impression she’s about to use its lens as a dildo. The sex-objectification of Noni has been done with the full approval of her mom — in a beautiful piece of dialogue Noni confesses that she was hoping her mom would say no to the latest piece of sexual exploitation her record company and her co-star wanted to put her through (including Kid Culprit and her drifting into a real-life affair which Noni describes thusly: “We texted, we hit it, and we texted about hitting it”), which mom never did because she was apparently perfectly O.K. with her daughter being merchandised as essentially an animated sex doll. Things come to a head when after her latest public performance she goes to the hotel where she and her mom are staying in Beverly Hills, climbs onto the balcony, perches herself over the rail and prepares to jump — and she actually does lose control, only Kaz is there to save her and pull her back to safety. Kaz is given a reward check from Noni’s label to lie and say Noni’s fall and near-death was an “accident,” and the two maintain contact as much as possible given the protective cocoon her mom and her label’s business people have built around her. (At one point Kaz goes to one of Noni’s gigs hoping to be let in backstage to see her, and he’s told by a security guard to “go back there with the rest of the groupies.”)
Much of what makes this film interesting is that Prince-Bythewood’s script is constructed so both leads are living lives largely controlled by ambitious parents who want to live out their own dreams vicariously through their kids. Kaz’s father is referred to only as “Captain Nicol” and he, like his son, is a police officer, but he’s lining up Kaz to run for a local political office as the stepping stone to him becoming the second African-American U.S. President (a point Prince-Bythewood makes economically by showing us the interior of Kaz’s apartment, which prominently features a book called Obama), and he’s scared that an affair with a pop star who’s getting a lot of bad press in the tabloids for attempting suicide is going to distract him from his political ambitions and also cost him the support of African-American ministers whose help he needs to win elective office in a Black district. Noni’s label executives threaten to drop her and cancel the release of her upcoming solo CD if she can’t convince people that she didn’t actually try to kill herself, and they give her an ultimatum that her career as a singer will be made or broken by her upcoming performance at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards show. (BET was one of the co-producers of this film.) Only she decides to announce to Kid Culprit that she’s breaking up with him just before they’re about to go on, and he responds by sabotaging their performance and denouncing her on stage in front of millions of TV viewers — and Kaz, there at Noni’s invitation, punches him out. The two lovebirds flee to Mexico after their fiasco of a performance and hide out in an obscure resort town, where they live a brief idyll until one night they got out to a karaoke bar and he tries to sing. He has a decent but strictly amateur voice, and he’s bombing with the crowd when she decides to help him out and takes the stage for an a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.”
Alas, they’re “outed” when someone in the audience realizes who it is (even though she’s taken out her purple hair extensions in an attempt to remain incognito), films it on their smartphone and uploads it to social media with the caption, “AMAZING! Noni sings Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird.’” Noni’s mom comes down to get her, a posse of reporters shows up at the door of the cabin Noni and Kaz were sharing, and the video becomes so sensationally successful the record company tries to rehire her — only Noni’s mom realizes they already officially sent her notice terminating the contract, and if they want Noni to re-sign they’re going to have to shred the copies they’ve already pressed of her CD and reprint it with a couple of Noni’s own songs added. The pressures on Noni become so great she fires her mom as her manager after her mom slaps her during an argument (both the beginning and ending of this film reminded me of the later stages of Gypsy, with Gypsy Rose Lee turning on her monumentally controlling mother and firing her just before she reaches her career height) and she agrees to perform in her native Britain for the first time since her mom took her out of the country to make her a star in the U.S., where she sings, not Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” but a new song of her own on the same theme but a more optimistic one that says this blackbird is ready and able to soar on her own. She also introduces Kaz on stage after he’s overcome his fear of flying (he’d never been on a plane until an earlier sequence in which she chartered one, blindfolded him so he wouldn’t know what was happening, and virtually raped him aboard the plane) to join her for her British gig. The ending seemed a bit too sappy and rom-commy to me (I had thought Prince-Bythewood was going for a bittersweet finale in which the two lovebirds have liberated each other from their parents’ expectations but realize they can’t make their own relationship work), but overall Beyond the Lights had me enthralled in ways modern movies rarely do.
Charles made the observation that in some ways it seemed like a 1930’s movie; though the sex scenes between the leads are far more explicit than they could have been under the Production Code, they’re still suggestive rather than raw: we don’t get to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker pound away at each other, and we see very little bare flesh. Indeed, there were a number of 1930’s movies which used this same basic plot line — spoiled star meets proletarian boyfriend and gets taken down several pegs (Bombshell with Jean Harlow, 1933; In Person with Ginger Rogers, 1935; Go West, Young Man with Mae West, 1936) — though Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose career since making this film has been mostly in TV, alas; she deserves more and better feature-film opportunities!) uses the greater sexual honesty allowed to today’s filmmakers without abusing it as so many other filmmakers have done. According to imdb.com’s “Trivia” page on Beyond the Lights, the project was originally developed at Sony Pictures Entertainment but they decided to pass on it because they didn’t think Gugu Mbatha-Raw was strong enough for the lead — what was wrong with those people? She’s absolutely magnificent in the role, carrying off the emotional minefield Prince-Bythewood wrote for the character and nailing every one of Noni’s conflicting desires and drives. Beyond the Lights makes me want to track down Prince-Bythewood’s other films (as Black Panther did for Ryan Coogler — it’s interesting that the two best modern movies I’ve seen all year both involved Black writer-directors and mostly Black casts!) and hopes she gets more chances to do work of this amazing quality.
 — According to imdb.com, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s real name is Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha and she’s the mixed-race daughter of Black South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and white British nurse Anne Raw. So she, like her character here, is mixed-race.