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Thursday, November 13, 2014

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is a Cliched Romantic Drama with Two Great Lead Performances

If you thought the commercials for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's BEYOND THE LIGHTS looked like any number of romantic dramas in which a damsel in distress is "saved" by a big strong -- and beautiful -- man, then you were right. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a pop starlet caught between her fabricated image and her true identity, who does in fact find the strength to stand on her own two feet only when she falls in love with her heroic bodyguard (Nate Parker) -- after which they live happily ever after. It's derivative, it's cliched, it's expected (considering Prince-Bythewood also brought us the equally simplistic, Love & Basketball). But you know what? Mbatha-Raw and Parker sell it.

Let's move beyond its well-worn premise for a bit, which admittedly deserves every criticism you may have -- from its presumed failure to honor the much talked about feminism code to its made-for-MTV appeal. Ponder this instead: how many times have we seen a recent major release original romantic film (in this case meaning not adapted from a book, not a sequel and not an independent film) with two lead characters of color entangled in a romance that does not include gang members, murder and/or drugs? I'll wait.

It's strange that we live in a world in which tiny victories like this are considered major milestones, but here we are. We're at a place where two gorgeous actors of color portraying lovers on screen is something of an anomaly. Even more interesting, it seems like the world is finally catching on to what many of us already knew -- Mbatha-Raw and Parker are undeniable talents. It might have taken Mbatha-Raw donning a long purple weave and skimpy costumes, and Parker nearly in the buff, to get here -- but we've finally made it. At least a little.

BEYOND THE LIGHTS takes a lot from films like A Star is Born in that it's about two distinct individuals whose big time careers often get in the way of who they really are -- and how their romance collides with their separate ambitions. It's hokey and melodramatic at times for sure, but it doesn't get so carried away from reality that it removes you from the film. And that's all due to the performances. Mbatha-Raw's vulnerable performance as fragile pop sensation, Noni, is particularly heartrending at times -- infused with equal levels of tenderness and bold, naughty girl sexuality that will make anyone's head spin at the fact that this is all coming from one actress who just earlier year brought us the demure, corseted royal heiress in Belle. Yes, Hollywood, Mbatha-Raw is beautiful, talented and here to stay.

Same goes for Parker, who's delivered one great performance after another for years that it seems silly to refer to him as a "breakout star." Did people miss his amazingess in Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters seven years ago, and how he held his own alongside Richard Gere in 2012's Arbitrage? Parker yet again redefines himself here as an actor playing Kaz, a dapper cop/security officer in charge of keeping Noni safe. When Noni takes a dramatic personal stumble, it is Kaz who becomes her knight in shining armor -- rescuing her from a downward spiral and helping her find her true voice. This male superhero trope gets a jolt when Noni in turn far less dramatically rescues him back. (Sorry, I couldn't resist this Pretty Woman cliche in a genre that continues to borrow from itself). So that's a mild but appreciated surprise which allows Parker to play with a little nuance. The scenes between Kaz and his father (Danny Glover) are particularly special to watch.

Then there's Minnie Driver, who stars as a rather unsung character in the commercials yet delivers the film's most complex performance as Noni's single mother, Macy Jean. Introduced as an unreasonable stage mom right from the beginning of the film, Macy Jean was determined to remove herself and her young daughter from their South London flat and turn Noni into a superstar -- by any means possible. Which entails turning Noni into a product, sacrificing her innocence, voice and natural hair texture in order to be accepted in America's superficial yet coveted vault of approval. Driver portrays Macy Jean as driven but unlikable, narrow-sighted yet by the end of the film she allows an ounce of love to peak through her tough exterior. Actually, to her own words, everything Macy Jean does is on account of love for Noni. It's just that her love isn't the gooey, pleasurable kind we see in other areas of the film. It's dutiful, deliberate, and harsh but still unyielding. Driver carries all these responsibilities in a performance that is nothing short of impressive.

These fine performances would not be what they are without Prince-Bythewood's dedication to the story and insight into the life of an American pop product. The filmmaker is known for her often mawkish portrayals of black romance, but she attempts to touch on the misogyny and pride-swallowing apathy that makes up much of the entertainment industry -- though not enough to make a definitive point about that as it focuses on the romance between Kaz and Noni. I would have liked to have seen more of a statement piece, something that gives me a little more to cling to, but there is something charming about Prince-Bythewood's depiction of the power of love. It's not enough to compel cynics like myself, but it will likely touch the heart of romantics everywhere.

Rating: C+ (** 1/2 out of *****)

BEYOND THE LIGHTS is in theaters Friday, November 14th.


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