Quick Rihanna, check to see if someone stole your diary. This ode to young Black chanteuses fighting personal demons feels like the story of her life. But in fact, it’s the brainchild of writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), who knows her way around a romantic drama.
Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle), a singer, has been driven to superstardom by her overbearing stage mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), who must have taken lessons in emotional abuse from Michael Jackson’s dad. As a kid, Macy shamed her daughter when she came in second at talent contests. She’d make her throw the runner-up trophy away. Noni, would retreat, put an emotional wall up around herself and sing her favorite song, “Blackbird,” the tortured-soul Nina Simone version.
Prince-Bythewood’s script sets the turbulence of the mother/daughter relationship in a block of cement. Noni is trapped. Mom is living through her daughter, pushing her to succeed at any costs. Like Michael Jackson, sometimes under pressure, harried offspring succeed, but they self-destruct too.
All looks well one night after a glitzy Billboard awards show in L.A. Noni has won a Best Song trophy and looks dazzling, but behind the big smile and haughty demeanor, she’s just a very sad little girl in a stripper’s dress. Noni decides to jump off a balcony. Providence sends an angel to save her. His name is Kaz (Nate Parker, Red Tails). He’s a cop moonlighting as a security guard. She grasps his hand as she dangles perilously between the 12th floor and the hard, cold pavement.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as “Noni.”
The script pushes these two disparate souls together like it was destiny. She’s an artist, sensitive, insecure, wayward. He’s a straight-shooter cop, being groomed by his ambitious police captain dad (Danny Glover) for a political career and city council seat. Noni’s frayed-nerve vulnerability and rampant sensuality are played perfectly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mbatha-Raw’s role in Belle, as a confident, bi-racial granddaughter in a white British aristocratic family facing 18th century racism, is the exact opposite of this emotionally distraught Rihanna-wannabe character coping with the rough, unforgiving world of music. Her versatility, dexterity and inner and outer beauty is amazing to watch. She’ll have a long career. Parker as Kaz plays it like a young, muscled Sidney Poitier. His characterization is virile, ambitious, gentlemanly, yet loving. The two actors make the characters and their romance come alive. They have real chemistry. You want Noni and Kaz—through the arguments, misunderstandings, break-ups and make-up sex—to endure.
Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha- Raw star in “Beyond the Lights.”
Driver as the mother from hell turns in her best performance in years; her Macy is selfish, relentless and possessed. Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker co-stars as Kid Culprit, Noni’s label mate, duet partner and ex-paramour. He’s suitably mean and aggressive, in a Chris Brown should-have-been-jailed-yesterday kind of way.
The film is nicely shot (Tami Reiker) and edited (Terilyn A. Shropshire, Love & Basketball) but perhaps its strongest tech elements are the over-the-top costume design by Sanda Hernandez (The Secret Life of Bees) and the snappy musical score with songs by Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Richard C. Baker that have just the right blend of R&B, hip hop and swagger.
The sweetness and pop culture feel that keeps this film afloat is a testament to the nimble, smart, sensitive direction of Prince-Blythewood, who turns her script into a very romantic love story for twentysomethings or those who can remember back to their young adult relationships. Her sensibility touches on a contemporary, urban melodrama that could be construed as formulaic or predictable, but what she’s really doing is using strong romantic/drama storytelling technique to her best advantage. She’s knows the genre, and she’s working her magic.
You’ll walk away from this film lighthearted and wanting to hold someone’s hand.
Visit NNPA Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.