On Wednesday night, I was faced with a dilemma: do I watch a screening of Beyond the Lights or Dumb and Dumber To. In one hand we have a movie by celebrated director Gina Prince-Bythewood, a director that can be classified alongside Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, and John Singleton as an auteur that helped define the late ’80s/early ’90s era of cinema for people of color. I mean, she created Love and Basketball, a love story that many cite as one of their faves of the ’90s. In other hand, we have Dumb and Dumber To a follow-up to a comedic touchstone in the history of pop culture where Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels do and say idiotic things and we laugh at them. It was a real Sophie’s Choice situation. I decided to follow my heart and go with Beyond the Lights as I saw the slapstick shenanigans of Dumb and Dumber To slip through my fingers and fade away into the distance.
I’ll admit I chose to watch Beyond the Lights because I knew it was a romantic love story — and I love tearing love stories apart. Mainly because I have a heart of darkness and chant the mantra of “I’m going to end up alone with nothing but Netflix and mediocre Chinese takeout as my unconditional lovers” on a nightly basis whilst eating a box of donuts. Nonetheless, the movie follows a purple-haired Rihanna-type pop diva on the rise named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with a domineering momager (Minnie Driver). After winning a Billboard award, she goes back to her hotel and attempts suicide by jumping off her hotel balcony…because that’s what you do when you win a huge honor. Her suicide attempt is thwarted by handsome security guard Kaz (Nate Parker) as he pulls her to safety into his manly muscular arms. He falls for her and she falls for him…and they “see each other.” The rest of the movie takes us on a romantic ride of how a pop diva and a security officer fall in love.
Everything about this screams, “PLEASE MAKE FUN OF ME!” It sounds like a damn Harlequin romance novel for Christ’s sake. I was all ready to take apart what I thought would be one of the cheesiest romances of the year, but unfortunately, I couldn’t. Because I, like Noni and Kaz, fell in love. I fell in love with them. I fell in love with this movie. I fell in love…with love. It made my heart grow three times larger and I am not ashamed to say so.
Beyond the Lights could have been cheesy. It could have fallen into Nicholas Sparks territory, but instead it restrained itself from all of the kissing-in-the-rain overtures and grounded itself in a different romantic reality that is not only tolerable, but somewhat realistic. Sure, it’s a movie about a pop star falling in love with a normal person (like that ever happens) and there are soap opera moments in this movie (a slap from the mother, sweeping romantic dialogue). Prince-Bythewood delivers the story in way she knows the audience won’t gag. Instead of giving us chocolates in a tacky heart-shaped box, she gives us romance in the form of something a little more refined and classy — like a thoughtful vintage piece of jewelry. Geez. I am turning into a hopeless romantic right before your eyes — but don’t expect it to last.
The thing that helped me not vomit during this movie is the wonderful chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. It is SIZZLING. And I am in love with Mbatha-Raw. She is gorgeous and she embodies everything a pop diva is today. As Noni, she is everyone’s puppet, but doesn’t play the victim. It takes Kaz to make her realize that she needs to be herself and tells her, “YOU BE YOU BOO!” And the transformation is something that just makes you smile. It is formulaic, but not to the point where Prince-Bythewood beats you over the head with a bunch of tropes. It’s a beautiful, sexy love story for this generation — all set to a bangin’ soundtrack (SPOILER ALERT: they get it on in an airplane to Beyonce’s boo-foo anthem, “Drunk in Love.”)
But let me get back to Mbatha-Raw. If the way she portrays a pop diva is anything like Beyonce or Rihanna are in real life, then maybe we should cut them a little slack and stop scrutinizing so much — but I seriously doubt they are as deep as our dear Noni. In the beginning of the movie, when her younger self is singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and comes in 2nd place, her mother is furious and forces her to toss her trophy. From then on out, she is trained that she is not good enough. In turn, deep down, she feels she doesn’t deserve anything she earns. Failure is the only option for her. It shows when she is backstage at the Billboard Awards and she sees Chaka Khan backstage in passing and she says “Hi.” Noni has this bewildered face that says, “I don’t fucking belong here nor do I deserve any of this.” From beginning to end, Mbatha-Raw gives a nuanced performance of a character that could have ended up a second rate Lifetime movie of the week character in the hands of someone else.
Like Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights defines a specific era of time, but still gives us the timelessness of a worthwhile love story. The movie is an unexpected, heartbreaking/warming surprise of romantic cheese…but the good kind of cheese.
Beyond the Lights opens in theaters today.