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.

It’s 2016, So Where are All the Female Directors?

By Josiah Wampfler

In 1896, Alice Guy-Blache became the first female film director with the release of La Fee aux Choux. A pioneer of French cinema, she directed all the films released by the Gaumont Film Company until 1905 and is credited as one of the first filmmakers to produce narrative films. Her filmography includes over 1,000 films and she was the first woman to manage and own her own film studio.

One would think that if the industry had been inclusive as early as 1896, that today we would have a bevy of films directed, produced and written by women. One would expect that the number of women in behind-the-scenes roles in the industry would be at least about level with the number of men. Unfortunately, one would be very, very wrong.

Despite Blache’s accomplishments, she is rarely mentioned among the pioneers of cinema and I had personally never heard of her before writing this article. Like so many women from the early days of cinema, she has been lost to time while her male counterparts are celebrated.

Today, the representation of women in Hollywood is in some ways worse than at the beginning. The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film recently released its 2015 Celluloid Ceiling Report that details the amount of women working in major behind-the-scenes roles in the industry. The report found that only 12 percent of the top 500 films in 2015 were directed by a woman. Of the top 250 films, only 9 percent had a female director and of the top 100 films, only 7 percent had a female director.

Last year was marginally better than 2014 when 7 percent of the top 250 films were directed by women, but that is clearly not enough. In fact, the 9 percent we saw in 2015 was the same number of female directors the industry had in 1998. In 18 years, the industry has not improved at all.

And it is not just female directors that are lacking. The report also found that of the top 250 films of 2015, only 15 percent of writers, 26 percent of producers, 21 percent of editors and 10 percent of cinematographers were female. All together, 81 percent of the behind-the-scenes roles on the top 250 films of 2015 were filled by men. Another number that is the same as it was in 1998.

It is painfully obvious that the industry has a problem. In the United States, 51 percent of the population is female, so why is one of our most influential industries dominated by male voices? Some may think that there just aren’t enough women pursuing a career in filmmaking, but that is simply not true.

Last year, MTV News reported that nearly half the student populations at USC and NYU – two major film schools – were women. The problem isn’t that women aren’t pursuing careers in film, it is that they aren’t getting jobs once they get out of school; a stark contrast from their male counterparts. After all, we live in a time where filmmakers like Colin Trevorrow make one independent film and are then handed the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise.

Huge changes need to be made in the film industry. It should not be more difficult to become a filmmaker just because you are a woman. That is completely ludicrous. But, unfortunately I cannot make these changes and they won’t come overnight. Pressure needs to be continually put on Hollywood to change its act. They need to see that people are fed up with sexism in the industry and they want change.

That is one of the reasons I am starting a series on our site called the “Female Directors Spotlight.” Every month, I will highlight one or two films directed by women that I think you should check out. The films will range from small independent films to large studio films. You may not even have known that some of these films were directed by women. I will be highlighting as many great films as possible and my hope is that more people will start to recognize the talent of these directors. This series will not end the horrible sexism in the film industry, but I hope that this article and the series will help to continue the much-needed discussion about the lack of gender diversity in the industry.