Beyond the Lights
As I watched Beyond the Lights, I was thinking a lot about Arielle Bernstein’s recent essay “In Defense of the Likable Character”. This seemed like the perfect example: two main characters, both struggling to do the right thing, and neither one coming off as flat and boring, despite the recent narrative push towards antiheroes.
Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an up-and-coming pop star. Her mother (Minnie Driver) has stage-managed them both out of South London poverty, and she wins a Billboard award for a track with her celeboyfriend Kid Culprit (Richard “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker) just weeks before her first album is about to drop. But she’s profoundly unhappy, and comes very close to walking off the balcony of her penthouse hotel suite.
She is stopped by the security guard, an off-duty cop covering for his moonlighting friend. Kazam “Kaz” Nicol (Nate Parker) keeps quiet for her, playing along with the official “too many celebratory drinks” explanation, but sees her as just another diva passing through Los Angeles. And yet he has more in common with her than he thinks, pushed by his police captain father (Danny Glover, clearly not too old for this yet) towards a career in politics.
As the media circus ramps up, Kaz is pushed to take the opportunity to grab a city council seat that’s about to open up. Even Noni expects him to turn a profit on his brush with her fame, just like everyone else does. But instead he starts to look past her surface, encouraging her to bring her true self out into the public eye.
It’s far from the most complicated story, but Mbatha-Raw and Parker imbue their characters with an earnestness that never quite tips over into cloying sentimentalism. Noni could easily have become a poor-little-rich-girl, but the way the music industry treats young women is a very real danger. It’s hard for me to tell whether her stage performances are realistic for current hip-hop, or push over into parody, but either way they can be hard to watch unless you set aside the idea that this woman is anything other than a sexual object, and writer/director Gina Prince-Blythewood makes it impossible to do that here. Even the inevitable bedroom scene is focused more on how Noni and Kaz finally get the chance to relax, and comes off more tame than a prime-time soap opera.
But despite such a drive towards goodness, neither Noni nor Kaz comes off as a bland goody-goody. Noni, obviously, is stuck in a bad rut and needs to break free from that, but Kaz has some soul-searching of his own to do. Just because they want to do good doesn’t mean they automatically know what that looks like; Prince-Blythewood has done a great job here of letting that journey play out.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.