As writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights opens, young Noni (India Jean-Jacques) is having hair trouble. Her mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), desperately forces her into a closed salon and begs a hairstylist to do something with her nappy locks in anticipation of a talent contest. Noni’s hair ends up being an overriding focus in the film, and when she places second for her stirring rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” it’s clear that Macy Jean blames her daughter’s overall look for the loss. The entire sequence, which takes place in 1990s London, speaks to the writer-director’s central concern with not just how young women are expected to act and look according to the masses, but the multiple roles that they’re asked to play in private and public without visible distress.
Years later, Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the precipice of pop stardom, dating Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker), an irrepressibly white rapper, and with a debut album about to drop. Prince-Bythewood sets Noni as a clear mirror image of singers like Rhianna and Ciara, decking her out in garb tailored to male fantasies: stilettos, skimpy dresses, stylized and dyed hairdos, and at least one leather collar. This theatrical way of living brings her monetary comfort, but also clearly stresses her out. Mbatha-Raw registers clear discomfort and exhaustion whenever her character prepares for an appearance, and eventually, following an awards ceremony, Noni nearly takes a suicidal dive off of a hotel balcony.
She’s saved from the incident by a cop, Kaz (Nate Parker), and a romance forms between them, helped out by the gossip-mill media outlets that follow Noni around. And much like Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood’s excellent debut, Beyond the Lights becomes a love story steeped in the struggles of professional ambition, as Kaz is being groomed to enter the political field by numerous African-American higher-ups, not least of which his police-captain father (Danny Glover). He’s being coached on how to act on a highly televised world stage, who to date and what to say, preparations not unlike those that drove Noni to her erratic station in life.
Both Parker and Mbatha-Raw handle the more chintzy passages of the script’s dialogue well, and end up bringing out natural appeal through their own distinct deliveries and physicality. There’s a great scene about halfway through Beyond the Lights where Noni is meant to strip down to her lingerie on stage during a performance with Kid Culprit, but she refuses to take off her clothes at the last moment. The sequence plays out like a lurid expression of what Noni’s life is really about, with Culprit half-pretending to throw her around, rough her up, and finally use her for the audience’s benefit. Her sudden denial of this fantasy not only causes a ruckus on stage, but also puts her in Dutch with her already touchy label.
Much of the blame for Noni’s depression ends up with Macy Jean, who excuses misogynistic photographers to keep Noni on magazine covers. As Macy Jean explains, she was asked to play so many roles on top of mother, including father, manager, agent, and promoter, that business sense overtook maternal extinct. Noni is similarly expected to be a singer, a dancer, a role model, a celebrity, and a sex symbol, all while also beaming with some tinny sense of purity. Beyond the Lights presents a fascinating polemic on maintaining true identity while also crafting a divergent, false face for an unwieldy public, but the writer-director hardly utilizes her images to subvert, or substantiate, the power of such expected veneers.
The film remains chiefly concerned with the story’s arc, exemplified by Noni finally reclaiming herself by ditching her weave, letting her nappy hair out, and getting a second wind through her rendition of “Blackbird,” filmed by a fan at a small karaoke bar. And by rooting Noni’s self-image issues in a controlling mother, the script essentially provides the film with a thematic weave, a familiar, tame melodramatic structure used to simplify the thorny, important matters of identity and expression that make Beyond the Lights unique, if only ultimately in spots.