"Beyond the Lights" Review

“Beyond The Lights” is a tough nut to crack. On the surface it’s as shallow as its main character’s on stage persona. Yet underneath, it has a lot to say about who we really are behind the masks we all wear.

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a burgeoning pop star. With hit records and an award before her first album drops, this Rihanna-esque idol is going places. At least that’s what one would think. Yet the outside force of being pushed into her on stage persona by her helicopter mom Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), her fans, her record label, and  the rest of the music industry has Noni thinking about going over the edge of her penthouse balcony. Fortunately, the police officer on duty for her security, Kaz (Nate Parker), is able to catch her before she can hit the ground. It’s in this moment that Kaz tells Noni he “sees her”. This resonates with Noni because for the first time someone looks past the glitz and glamour to the real person inside.

Circumventing a PR disaster, Macy Jean writes a nice check to a police foundation to get Kaz to agree to a story that paints Noni as having been drunk and slipping over the edge of the balcony rather than attempting suicide. Kaz himself is all too familiar with a parent trying to live through his child with his father Captain Nicol (Danny Glover) pressuring him to back the story. Neither Noni or Kaz are able to be themselves due to outside coercion. It’s in this pressure cooker that both Noni and Kaz have grown into the adults they are, seem to relate to one another, and how their love blossoms. 

The heavy lifting of the film is done by Mbatha-Raw. As the rest of the story unfolds we see the layers come off Noni both figuratively and literally as she gets back to her true self. Slowly she starts to wear more clothes, less makeup and eventually her natural curly, colorless hair. The transformation throughout the film is powerful and credit must be given to Mbatha-Raw in showing her range from a confident, trained starlet to an insecure but genuine everyday girl. 

Writer/Director Gina Prince-Bythewood proves that we can’t wait another six years for a film from her, and certainly not another fourteen years (since “Love & Basketball”) for another love story! This film makes a powerful statement on today’s music industry that’s built on fabricating identities, and selling sex at the cost of an entertainer’s own identity. Yet the most relevant lesson is that it’s never too late to take control of your own life, and empowering oneself to be true to yourself. 

I know. The burning question you want to know: Is it as good as “Love & Basketball”? You’ll have to grab your significant other and see for yourself! I will say, it just may be the “Love and Basketball” for this generation!

Rating: B

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.