Female Directors Spotlight – “Beyond the Lights”

By Josiah Wampfler

Celebrity. Fame. When most of us hear these words we think about lavish houses, expensive cars, adoring fans: the great things about stardom. What we don’t think about is the swarm of paparazzi, the tabloids that spread rumors and lies, and the vicious attacks on social media and in person. And for women, there are even more negative side effects to fame. From the vitriolic sexism on the internet to the more subtle ways the world puts pressure on women to look and act “lady-like,” women in the public eye face a constant minefield.

Fame has its benefits, but it obviously is not all it is cracked up to be. Our society seems to fetishize and fantasize the downfall of our biggest stars. We love to see someone knocked off their pedestal. And like the screaming masses in Caesar’s Colosseum, cheering for the lions to tear the gladiators apart, sometimes we get what we want.

Beyond the Lights is a film about the things celebrities face each and every day. It follows a superstar singer, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is overwhelmed by her life and attempts suicide one night. As she goes over the edge of the balcony though, Officer Kaz (Nate Parker) is there to save her. A relationship between the two blossoms as Noni starts a journey to find who she really is and what she wants out of life.

Directed and written by Gina Prince-Blythewood, Beyond the Lights is a wonderful film about the importance of staying true to yourself and the dangers of fame. Prince-Blythewood takes a fairly simple story and elevates it beyond just another love story. She manages to infuse the complexity of life into the film with fully fleshed-out characters and well-written dialogue.

And all of this is supported by a wonderful cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a revelation as an actress and singer in the film. She breaths life into the character of Noni and brings a character full of complexity. She can be sexy and strong but also completely vulnerable and there are several emotional scenes that really impressed me. Plus, her chemistry with her co-star, Nate Parker (who is equally as wonderful), is palpable.

Minnie Driver and Danny Glover deliver great performances as well, with Driver playing Noni’s mother and Glover playing Kaz’s father. Driver is especially excellent as the overbearing mother/manager, bringing an extremely intense character to the screen. And there are some great emotional moments between her and Mbatha-Raw that simply wowed me.

Beyond the Lights is not a perfect film and there are moments here and there that feel a bit cheesy, but overall I thought it was an emotionally impacting film. While Noni certainly lives a life most of us will never know, Prince-Blythewood manages to make her completely relatable. Her pain and her struggles feel genuine and through this we start to see how dehumanizing fame can be for a person. But, we also start to see Noni’s true self emerge. Thankfully, unlike so many other celebrities who faced the dehumanizing power of fame, Noni is able to escape the tragic fate the tabloids thirst for and become the artist she always wanted to be.

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