Written by Marisa Carpico
Plot: When rising pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tries to kill herself, the policeman who saves her, Kaz (Nate Parker), helps her break free from the pressure placed on her by the industry, her studio-approved rapper boyfriend (Machine Gun Kelly), and her stage mother/manager, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver).
Six years since her last film, and fourteen since her much-loved début Love & Basketball, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood returns with Beyond the Lights. Though originally titled Blackbird in reference to the great Nina Simone song that plays at various times throughout, it could have easily been released under the title of another of Simone’s greats: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
The gifted young people in this case are Kaz (short for Kazam) and Noni, who are, in different ways, suffocating under their parents’ expectations for their success. In Kaz’s case, his father (Danny Glover) wants him to advance further than he himself did in the LAPD and eventually go into politics. It’s a standard tale that Dear White People covered with more depth and wit. Noni’s story is more interesting.
We meet her as a child, the sole black girl in a crappy talent show somewhere in Brixton, a troubled section of London. She sings “Blackbird” and wins second place, but her mother is so furious at the loss, she forces Noni to smash the trophy. When next we see her, this time winning her first Billboard award for guest singing (and writhing half naked in the video) on her white rapper boyfriend’s newest track, it’s painfully easy to imagine how emotionally abusive moments like that have turned her into the vapid sex object she is now.
Noni barely speaks in those first scenes, and everyone around her, including her mother in full momager mode, is too busy making sure she meets the expectations of modern pop star fame to ask or care why. She is literally collared by the image she must maintain, the huge piece of jewelry around her neck the physical manifestation of her complete lack of agency. It’s no wonder she nearly steps off a balcony.
Up until that moment, the film is a deeply effective and provocative look at the demands fame makes on women—but then Kaz shows up with a permanent moue on his face and the whole thing turns into a rote love story. Outside of one pretty great sex scene involving a private jet, a blindfold, and Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” their coupling is unremarkable and distracts from the more complex story of personal growth underneath. Watching Noni slowly take back control of her life is like watching a flower bloom. Mbatha-Raw plays her with a sort of quicksilver quality at the beginning, and it’s hard to know who Noni really is because she seems to change her behavior to fit the expectations of whoever she is with at the moment, mostly because she doesn’t know herself anymore. And while the film suggests that her relationship with Kaz helps her to finally break free of that pressure, it fails to acknowledge that he’s equally guilty of projecting an idea onto her.
Noni is – literally on the edge of that balcony and figuratively as his troubled love – the person Kaz needs to save. His desire to help her is as much about creating an image of himself as it is about her well-being. When his father tells him that dating such a volatile public figure is bad for the burgeoning political career he doesn’t want, he pursues her even more. And when Noni doesn’t do what he expects, refusing to stay in their rundown Mexican bungalow and throw away the career she’s worked her whole life to get, he becomes cruel. Yet instead of criticizing him for that, the film takes the easy way out and portrays him as nothing more than the sweet savior with nice abs who helps Noni liberate herself.
Watching Kaz and Noni (finally liberated of that most egregious sign of oppression in black women’s pictures, the weave) embrace after she sings the first song she ever really wrote herself, it’s difficult to wish the film’s end had lived up to its beginning. What a film Beyond the Lights could have been if Prince-Bythewood had let Noni, for once, do something all by herself and foregone the happy romantic ending altogether. Hopefully she will consider that when she makes her next film in a couple of years.