“The less that she wears, the less that we see of her,” said writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood of her Beyond the Lights lead, Noni, portrayed superbly by breakthrough English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
This quote perfectly defines Beyond the Lights‘ dominating theme of finding one’s voice and self-worth amidst the pressures of the spotlight — in this case, the world of hip-hop and R&B.
The film — which was nominated for Best Original Song (Diane Warren‘s “Grateful”) at Sunday night’s Oscars and also marks Prince-Bythewood’s feature comeback since 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees — follows Noni, a biracial singer-songwriter who reaches superstardom after moving with her working-class single mother/manager, Macy Jean (played by Minnie Driver), from Great Britain to the United States. But what she soon discovers is that fame comes at the price of both her dignity and her identity.
When she looks at her reflection in the mirror or at any of her magazine covers, the glamorous woman posing provocatively in barely any clothing is a complete stranger to her. This hyper-sexualized image is what the public demands of her, but it’s not what she values inside or identifies with. The pressure ultimately reaches its limit, and we see her standing on the edge of her hotel balcony, ready to jump.
She slips but is saved by a charming, young police officer named Kaz (Nake Parker), who tells her three simple yet powerful words: “I see you.” That moment of clarity and connection catapults a new chapter in Noni’s life, a narrative that begins with self-discovery before it leads to romance.
This theme of being true to one’s own voice in an industry full of demands and pressures parallels Prince-Bythewood’s own journey into making the film. Inspired whilst attending an Alicia Keys concert, she completed the first draft, originally titled after Nina Simone‘s song “Blackbird,” back in 2007.
She returned to the script in 2009 and began pitching it, only to meet a muted response. BET offered financial support, but a studio had yet to say yes. The studios, she previously told Vulture.com, were reluctant to greenlight a film by a then unknown actress. Eventually, Prince-Bythewood decided to stop compromising her vision by choosing the independent route.
“I thought, What am I whining about?” she told the site. “Stop asking for permission. This is a story I’ve got to tell, it’s stuck in my head. It’s driving me crazy, so let me just shoot it.” That’s when Relativity Studios stepped in, promising Prince-Bythewood creative freedom of her story.
I had the privilege of interviewing Prince-Bythewood earlier this month to talk about the film, the importance of being authentic to oneself, and the various issues within the music industry that the film analyzes. Check it out below.
One of the major themes the film explores is sexual empowerment among young women in music. I’ve read your past interviews, and you’ve distinguished the difference between those artists — like Miley Cyrus and Ciara — who have changed their image to be more hyper-sexualized from those artists — like Beyoncé and Madonna — who are seemingly in control of their image.
GPB: Queen Bey?
(laughs) Yeah. And while the distinction is evident, there’s still some people who have that view that what they’re doing is still serving the male gaze. Was it a challenge to present this issue in a sensitive way?
GPB: Absolutely. I do feel that there’s a difference. It really comes down to agency and authenticity in who’s in control of your image. And for Beyoncé, she’s grown, and I feel that what she’s putting out is authentic to her in the same way that Madonna — I mean, Madonna was doing it for shock value, no doubt. But she didn’t have people behind her and handlers pushing her into that, whereas I see a difference in some of the young artists coming out. If I have to see one more young artists on the cover of the magazine topless, it drives me nuts. It’s just so unnecessary, and you know that artists did not walk in and pitch that to the magazine or pitch it to the photographer. Somebody’s telling them to do that.
In doing Beyond the Lights, Gugu [Mbatha-Raw] and I worked on this character for two years. It was really important for me to know that she would go there because we absolutely had to compete with what was out there. But Gugu bought into the vision, and it really was the less that she wears, the less that we see of her. Of course, it’s hard as a female director. To shoot the music video, I mean, it’s tough because I know what I’m putting out there. Honestly, I did go back and forth a lot in terms of the shot where she opens her legs. But I knew the point of it and that she was going to be on a balcony ready to jump. It’s because she has to put out that hyper-sexuality, so I knew that me as a director, I had to be brave enough to go there as well.
For research on the film, you spoke to and read about artists like Alicia Keys, Fantasia and Mary J. Blige. From what you learned in those conversations, did they alter what you thought of the music industry, or did they actually support your initial beliefs about it?
GPB: It supported it. It was very — in terms of Mary J. and Fantasia, those were interviews that I read. Obviously we know about Fantasia’s suicide attempt, but reading about Mary J. contemplating suicide as well… You know, [I] definitely was fortunate enough to talk to Alicia, who definitely influenced the script. And scenes within there were things she had gone through. She is an artist who pushed back, and thank God that she did because why we love her is because of her voice. It’s what got her to where she is. The saddest and most rewarding — I know that’s a weird thing to say — comments are from artists that have seen the film, musical artists who say it’s like watching their life.
Although the film touches on these issues that young artists face, it’s first and foremost a love story. What I think is great is that although Kaz helps her to find her self-worth, she [Noni] never really falls into that pitfall that we often see where she’s defined by this relationship.
GPB: Thank you.
How important is it for characters in romances, whether it’s comedies or dramas, to be fully realized as individuals before they’re in a relationship?
GPB: It is imperative. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself, or you can’t love yourself until you know yourself. That’s really what I wanted to put out there. There’s such a negative perception of love right now in the world. It’s really fuelled by music and reality shows. I really wanted to put out there to show the right way to love. Honestly, for young women and for men as well, which is why I ultimately made it PG-13. But I don’t think anybody in this day and age wants to see a film where a woman is helpless or has to be defined by a man.
I hope with my work, in terms of Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights, the two love stories that I did, that it’s important that a woman has a life outside of the relationship as well cause that’s what makes you whole. I tell my boys, if I couldn’t direct, I would not be a good mom cause I wouldn’t be doing what I love to do. But then on the flip side, getting to make movies wouldn’t be as meaningful if I didn’t have my young boys to come home to. I really need to put out in the world that women can have it all and should strive to have it all.
I think the most compelling characters are arguably the most flawed cause we can’t really relate to those characters who are perfect. Noni, when we first see her, she seemingly has this glamorous lifestyle. But as we get to discover very early on, she has these underlying issues of trust and self-worth. What aspect of her character have audiences responded most towards?
GPB: The beautiful thing that I found, and what I wanted to put out there, is that it doesn’t matter what your job is, who you are and what level of celebrity you are, pain is relative. We look at these artists, and we see these amazing pictures on Instagram, and they seem to be having this constant party. But it takes a toll. The ability of people, both men and women, [that are] able to connect with Noni despite the fact that she’s a star. But they’re able to connect with her on a personal level because she’s ultimately someone who’s struggling to find their voice and find their authentic self. I think that’s something we all struggle with. Me, as an artist, I’ve struggled with it. This film has given me the opportunity to explore that and hopefully inspire others, no matter what you do to find your authentic voice.
So many screenwriters, including yourself, often write stories borrowing from their personal lives. For instance, in some of your past interviews, you revealed that Noni’s upbringing was inspired by your own. You also stated that someone close to you had gone to that dark place she goes to at the beginning. While you can bring your own truth to the story, there’s also this challenge where you have to write for these voices and backgrounds that are completely foreign to your own. How do you immerse yourself into these characters when you’re writing them?
GPB: Great question. I do a ton of research. Even the smallest character — Danny Glover’s character [Captain Nicol]. I did a ton of research on who this guy would’ve been, a man of his age, what was it like coming up in the department of the LAPD, which we know how racist it was. How far did he go before he hit the ceiling and couldn’t go any further? Talking to cops… And so I do research on every character. There’s still one little personal aspect of myself in every character that helps me connect as well. And then I just do a ton of character work, which is really the fun part, where every character I do a complete back story and give them a full life, and make them real. That sustains me and honestly allows the characters to talk to me.
I also read, which is really interesting, that you have a playlist for when you’re writing scripts. Do you have a playlist for each personality on your stories?
GPB: The songs I pick are really more tied to themes and emotions. Music is everything to me. Certain songs just open me emotionally and allow me to just flow. But also for each character, I do create a playlist, and that’s a playlist I share with the actors. In terms of writing this film, some of the big songs on the playlist: “Skin” by Rihanna; “Save Me” by Nicki Minaj; “What If” by Coldplay — Coldplay is really big for me in terms of writing. They write great, great songs… “Climax” by Usher; “Swim Good” by Frank Ocean; Alicia Keys’ “Like I’ll Never See You Again” —- that was a big one. Sia… So it’s great songs that just open me up. Rihanna’s “Skin,” that’s who Noni was. That’s the kind of music that she sings, so if I’m writing scenes like that, I put that on. If I’m writing a love scene, you put on Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Worth.” You know, I could just see the scene in my head. That’s what I love; that’s what music does for me.
Are you ever never distracted by singing along? (laughs)
GPB: (laughs) The playlist had to be specific because they had to be songs that fill me emotionally but don’t distract me. If you find yourself bobbing your head, it’s like, wait, I’m not writing. I’m dancing.
I sometimes listen to movie scores, but they don’t really have lyrics, so it’s easier. (laughs)
GPB: There’s only one song I use…It’s from Slumdog Millionaire. That actually was on my playlist as well. I just — I love music.
Some people may not know this, but Noni was originally written as a [biracial] African-American. After Gugu auditioned, you changed her to fit her more, so she’s now a biracial English woman. Are you usually open to making these major changes to the script, even if it’s far into the development process?
GPB: By the time I get to me actually casting for films, the script has been through the ringer, and I’m pretty confident in it. But it’s exciting to have an actor come in and make you see the character in a different way. Gugu auditioned with an American accent, but once we sat down and started talking about the character, her connection to the material, she dropped the accent, and she was speaking in her normal voice. It just made it more interesting to me. I know that when I told her I was going to change the character to British, and she was excited about that.
Part of the film, so much about it is about finding your authentic self. At the time, her being in America, all the work that she’s done, she’s never used her British accent. So I think it was freeing for her as well. But I decided that it made the film more interesting. The fact that they came from London to American and followed this blueprint of African-American artists, that a white mother was following that blueprint. Also, of course, at the end of the film, Kaz hops on a plane and flies back, and before he didn’t have to do that.
Some of the most poignant moments in the film, in my opinion, are those where the dialogue isn’t really necessary. Two of the standout moments for me were the scene where Nona is at the photo shoot, and the photographer asks her to disrobe, and she doesn’t really say anything, but she’s looking around for help. And, of course, there’s that entire sequence where it’s an entire song playing, and it’s Noni and Kaz’s intimate moments. Why is there such a strength to these quiet, observing moments?
GPB: Well, thank you for that. That’s something that I’ve come to learn. Sometimes it’s more powerful to show something as opposed to tell. I learned that in Love and Basketball. There’s a scene where Quincy, his parents are fighting, and he climbs out of his window, and knocks on Monica’s window. She opens it, and he goes in, and just lays down. The original thing that we shot, he lays down, and starts talking about how his parents are fighting, and he does this all the time. When we started cutting it, we took out the dialogue, and it seemed to actually mean more. They don’t have to talk; it’s just their ritual. It just seemed to, I don’t know, even heightened their relationship. For me, just learning the show, don’t tell. Quiet moments are sometimes things that get cut because people wonder if it’s moving the story forward. But I feel like movies need those moments. There’s a time for an audience to really connect with characters.
When I saw Gugu’s performance at the photo shoot, the look that she gives her mother, the pleading in her eyes and getting nothing back, was so much more powerful than her pulling her mother aside and saying, “Hey, Mom. Do I have to do this?” It just showed so much about their relationship. Mexico, as you spoke about, what’s ironic is that in the middle of that sequence, in the original cut, there’s a scene where they’re talking in bed and talking about their childhood. But ultimately I cut it because it seemed to… Just the fact that there was no dialogue; this was them falling in love. It just seemed more emotional to not have any dialogue and see the evolution of their relationship.
Yeah, I think a lot of filmmakers don’t like taking that risk because they think they have to have tension or conflict all the time. But it works really well on this film.
GPB: Thank you.
Thank you so much.
GPB: I really appreciate your support of the film, and I appreciate the tweets. Take care!
Beyond the Lights arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes on Tuesday, February 18. Check out the trailer below.