No movie is intended to hit with every viewer. Sure, studios try to appeal to the widest possible swath of the consumer base, but every film has a target demographic. Can you imagine how completely bland a universally-appealing film would be? I am squarely not in that target for Beyond the Lights; I wasn’t confronted with any trailers for it leading up to the release, and the only posters I’ve seen have been on the sides of buildings. So why did I see it? If you had asked me about it 48 hours ago I would have put Beyond the Lights on my list of “never gonna see it” movies. But there exists two categories of people in the world: those who haven’t seen Beyond the Lights and those who have. And I now forever reside in the latter.
Beyond the Lights is not unique in its storyline – a newly famous singer named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) becomes disillusioned with the limelight and falls in love with a down-to-earth police officer named Kaz (Nate Parker) after he saves her life during a suicide attempt. All the pieces are in place; Noni’s mom/manager (momager) (Minnie Driver) is laser-focused on Noni’s career, while Kaz’s police captain father (Danny Glover) has his son lined up to be the next Obama. Beyond the Lights is the type of movie where two young people learn to advocate for themselves – when they aren’t rubbing their beautiful ebony bodies against one another.
My Primary Movie-Going Companion and I saw this one on a whim, after her friend recommended it. I can see why it pleases, as there is very little you can actively dislike about the film. It is incredibly earnest in its message, and Mbatha-Raw is very good. I cannot say the same for Parker, as everything he does just reads as “ironically-serous-Damon Wayans Jr.,” but he is trying really hard. It is not easy to stand up to Gugu – who seems to be able to emote effortlessly – so the fact that he makes an impression at all is positive.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) establishes a pretty pitch-perfect replica of the modern hip-hop environment, with Noni filling the role of a sort of Rihanna/Nicki Minaj hybrid. The music videos and live performances are exactly what you would see in the real world, and in a few spots the film shows a strong grasp of social media that most movies lack, but it all just kind of adds up to window dressing. The movie seems set up to be a satire or commentary of sorts, but Prince-Bythewood isn’t interested in any of that. And this leaves the picture feeling somewhat flat and unrealized, especially when an early invocation of the Princess Diana tragedy and the constant flashing of the cameras of the paparazzi seem primed for a social comment or two.
But it isn’t fair to judge a movie for what it’s not. Instead we are left to assess Beyond the Lights on its own merits. I can acknowledge that the film has strengths, even though it probably wasn’t made to appeal to me. Not only is Mbatha-Raw’s performance noteworthy, but Prince-Bythewood finds subtle ways to make the actress stand out even more. Whether in a haunting a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” or in a particularly emotional scene devoid of manipulative sound cues or score, the two artists work together to elevate what would otherwise be a totally average film. If Beyond the Lights seems like it would be right up your alley, you’re going to love it. Otherwise the feature gets a highly-qualified, very-cautious recommendation.