Admittedly, the film “Beyond the Lights” (2014; available to stream on Netflix) has zero strong female friendships. But, it has a complex mother (who seems one-dimensional and horrible but develops a bit as film progresses) and a flawed young female protagonist. (Who is pretty to look at, which doesn’t hurt.) And it’s also written and directed by a woman. Strong female friendship points to her, just for existing and doing her work. Oh! And! It has a great love story! Tucked within a conventional romance, there are also scenes that encourage you to think about sexism, racism, feminism, and the media. Those sound heavy, but the film is actually really light.
I think it does a great job of being easily accessible and entertaining but also allows the viewer, if he or she so chooses, to think a little bit about cultural issues. It’s great because you don’t have to; you can simply enjoy the love story. But you can also think about what it means for this fictional biracial star to be raised by her white single mom, the politics of hair, the universality and singularity of difficult parent-child relationships, or simply think about how a pop star appears in the press and how that image is created, maintained, and challenged.
In sum, “Beyond the Lights,” written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood of “Love and Basketball” fame, is a delightful romantic romp and I suggest you indulge in it as your leisure. I don’t remember hearing about it a few years ago when it came out in 2014, but it has a solid 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a shame that the movie seems to have come out without more attention, and perhaps it was due to the marketing?
In fact, an article on indiewire by Nijla Mumin argued just that—that the “surface elements of pop culture that the film’s Facebook page regularly posts” didn’t get at how the film “cleverly cuts into what we know as pop culture persona, cuts into the hyper-sexualization of female entertainers- of fake butts, stripper poles in music videos, glossy skin, and weaves and reveals a person suffering, like we all are suffering. But it does this while encouraging us to understand and take part in the illusion that main character Noni inhabits, to indulge while we also think and critique, like good music and art often do.” After watching the movie, and experiencing a range of emotions, I can’t help but concur with this critique. It’s interesting to me when producers and advertisers seem to really miss the mark when trying to get an audience to watch their movie or show. I know it’s not a science, but it seems particularly fraught when the product in question has to do with women or black culture.
If you’re a Slate Culture Gabfest-er, then you know you can trust a Dana Stevens approved movie, and she introduced her review in a fun way that I appreciated, writing:
“Beyond the Lights, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s show-business romance about the slowly blossoming affair between an ascendant pop star and a down-to-earth L.A. cop, is as shamelessly soapy as movies come—but I challenge you not to slip on the soap bubbles and fall right in to this movie’s invigorating bath.”
Soapy?! Invigorating bath?!? Happiness, thy name is soapy entertainment and bubble baths.
As mentioned, Minnie Driver as the mother is pretty awful and kind of stereotypically stage-mom-ish. But in the final arc of the film, I changed my mind and felt like we got to see a bit more of Driver. She’s not simply awful or greedy or manipulative, she’s very human, as well.
For her piece on indirewire, Shannon M. Houston wrote about a particularly unsettling scene in the middle of the film. Despite all of the media I consume, and all of the violent films and television I have watched , and despite the fact that someone could read the event as “not that big of a deal”—there’s no nudity, no penetration, etc.—the scene stayed with me after the film ended. As she’s performing on stage at the BET Awards with her ex , a white rapper named Kid Culprit, she’s enacting a sort of play or faux consummation with him, which isn’t that unusual. But instead of following the script, she stopped him from undressing her entirely and removing her trench coat as they were presumably meant to do.
He reacts negatively to this, and while still performing on stage, he takes control, aggressively trying to undress her while you see her start to panic. He throws her on the prop bed in what we can see is a sincerely angry and violent manner. Then a few seconds later, as she is trying to continue the performance despite her shaken demeanor, he pushes her head down to his crotch. His final act is to call her out after the song ends, saying that he broke up with her, etc. Honestly, in a mediascape in which I’ve seen countless fictionalized but graphic assaults and rapes in movies, shows, and books, this scene was still surprisingly unsettling for me, which I think is a credit to the actress and the understated but ominous nature of the act.
I’m going to end by once again quoting another review (because I can’t help it, I love how smart, creative people review things). So, to close with a few lines from Ben Sachs’ review in the Chicago Reader:
“Though Lights works smashingly as a genre piece, it’s also a serious critique of American media culture, which Prince-Bythewood presents as spiritually degrading. Noni, a talented singer, wants to follow in the footsteps of her hero Nina Simone and record the poetic, introspective songs she’s been writing since adolescence… Lights is a superior romance that manages to honor the conventions of classic melodrama while still feeling contemporary and unforced.”
Absolutely. It’s genre but you can definitely interact with it as a critique of pop culture, as well, and when that happens—when you get to indulge in melodrama but also engage in a little introspection—well, it’s a beautiful thing.