There was once a time in which films were expected to tell a story of significance and depth. There was also a time in which artistry and craft were at the forefront of the creative mind.
Alas, these are not those times.
However, director Gina Prince-Bythewood reminds us why we go see films with her most recent offering “Beyond The Lights,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver and Danny Glover. Best known for directing such emotionally honest films as “Love and Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” Prince-Bythewood seems to excel at depicting people of African descent in emotionally realistic circumstances. I asked the director where she believed her eye for such things was gleaned.
“Growing up, even as a little kid, I’ve always loved writing stories,” she explained. “I knew that was something I wanted to do. I was adopted by white parents growing up. So, my self-esteem was like, nil. I just remember being 17-years-old and going to the movies and the trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It” came up, and me looking up at the screen and seeing people that looked like me, the feeling that came over me was overwhelming. I could not wait to go see that film. I just had the urge to give others that same feeling that I had. To be able to see yourself up on the screen.”
“I love love stories. I love movies that make me feel,” she continued. “I want to go to the movies and really feel. Not just laugh or see something that’s on the surface, but make me feel. So, I write what I want to see. I’m just so interested in putting us up on screen, being real and authentic. I’ve just been fortunate with the movies that I’ve made, to be able to have the casts that I’ve had to embody these characters that I’ve created and make them so real. So much of it is just drawing from my personal life. That’s what leads to some of it. "Love and Basketball" is half autobiographical. This has a lot of biographical things as well. So, maybe it’s just being able to mine my own life and put it up on the screen.”
The protagonist in the film is a character named Noni, a beautiful young ingénue who is on the precipice of stardom. But that is exactly the point at which she begins to unravel. Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in the leading role and does a wonderful job. Some of our readership may remember her from the Fox Searchlight Picture “Belle.” However, Gina was aware of Gugu prior to that.
“I had vaguely seen her in ‘Undercovers.’ I was just aware of it because it’s so rare to have Black leads in a drama, and I am a fan of J.J. Abrams. But, I didn’t really watch the show. That was all I knew about Gugu. She auditioned for me two years ago. Before Belle, before Touch. She came in and auditioned and it was one of those great moments as a director where I saw her in the movie, saying the lines. Then, part of the audition was when she was singing Blackbird and I was like ‘Thank God, she can sing.’ Then just sitting and talking to her. The character was originally supposed to be American, but she dropped the American accent while we were talking. I thought it would be so much more interesting and it would make this film more global.”
The attention focused on accent strengthened the appeal of both Gugu and her character Noni. “For me at least, what makes Rhianna so interesting, is she’s created this little persona, but the fact that she’s got this accent and is from Barbados, it’s just that little extra thing. So, I wanted to bring that to it as well.”
Even though Gugu Mbatha-Raw played the role of Noni with great heart and realism, she almost didn’t get a chance to do her thing in this well thought out eye on the world’s voracious cult of personality addiction. Her name just wasn’t big enough for most big studios.
“There’s this thing as a director where your gut is telling you something. I felt like this woman was a star. The hardest thing was convincing studios to see what I saw. They didn’t get it. Everybody turned it down. It was very tough. So, I shot an eight minute presentation of Gugu to show case her because sometimes just talking about it isn’t enough. She was phenomenal in it. Part of it was elements from the movie. Every studio gave the same reaction. They loved it. They said ‘She’s great. But she’s not a star.’ They didn’t want to take a chance. It was so disheartening because this was something that was very obvious to me. It was frustrating because I wasn’t being given a chance to convince others of it. But, finally, we got it to BET and they saw it and were like ‘No questions! She’s a star.’ And they offered to put in a couple million.”
Once the lead actress was cast, the rest of “Beyond the Lights” sort of fell into place on after that initial hurdle was cleared.
“So, we had to get a studio. We went to Relativity and that was the very first studio that saw the presentation and said ‘She’s a star. You can cast her and whoever you want as the male lead you can cast as well.’ That was pretty phenomenal to be able to have that creative freedom.”
Actor Nate Parker brings a certain air of authenticity to each role he finds himself in. I asked Gina Prince-Bythewood if there was a particular quality that Parker brings to the table that made him her ideal leading male for this film.
“When I saw ‘Great Debaters’ I was like ‘Who is this dude?’ He seemed like he could be the next great leading man. He just hadn’t broken through because of that lack of opportunity to have a role like this. We worked together on ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ and had a great working relationship. Nate is a man. He’s not soft, he’s a very strong guy, and he understood Kaz. He was so protective of Kaz and it was important that he was real. He’s a good guy and you can be a good guy and not be soft. That’s what we loved putting out there. The character has a great relationship with his father as opposed to Noni and her Mom, they have a healthy way of working through their issues. Danny Glover and Nate Parker loved putting that out there and played of each other really well.”
“Beyond The Lights” opened in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 14. With a production budget of $7,000,000, “Beyond The Lights” is well on its way to recouping that with a $2,300,000 opening day. We’ll keep you posted on the cumulative tallies on Monday. The Shadow League gives “Beyond The Lights” a solid "A" for originality and social awareness as well as stellar performances by all the actors involved.