Talent in front of, behind camera in â€˜Beyond the Lightsâ€™
BY CARLA MEYERCMEYER@SACBEE.COM
03/05/2015 8:00 AM 03/05/2015 4:00 PM
In â€œBeyond the Lights,â€ now available on DVD and video on demand, British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw commands the screen as a Rihanna-like pop star. She exudes raw sensuality but also suggests an underlying vulnerability.
To create this combination â€“ so common to real-life superstars â€“ Mbatha-Raw and â€œLightsâ€ writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood did their homework, Prince-Bythewood said in a phone interview.
Mbatha-Raw, at the directorâ€™s urging, read biographies about Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, and watched â€œThe Rose,â€ the 1980 film that starred Bette Midler as a Janis Joplin-like rock singer. Together, star and director attended performances by Rihanna, BeyoncÃ© and Adele to gain a better sense of what makes musical superstars special.
Thereâ€™s flash and sizzle to â€œLights,â€ as well as a â€œBodyguardâ€-esque love story between Mbatha-Rawâ€™s character, Noni, and a cop (Nate Parker). The pair bond after the cop rescues Noni, who is troubled by career demands, from a suicide attempt.
Ultimately, the film is about Noni finding her own way â€“ a Prince-Bythewood specialty. The filmmaker has been a friend to actresses since she made â€œLove & Basketballâ€ in 2000, starring Sanaa Lathan.
In 2008, Prince-Bythewood made a fine adaptation of Sue Monk Kiddâ€™s female-centric novel â€œThe Secret Life of Beesâ€ with Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo.
With â€œLights,â€ which hit theaters this past November, Prince-Bythewood might have helped introduce the worldâ€™s next big movie star. A British TV veteran, Mbatha-Raw broke out earlier in 2014 in the period piece â€œBelle,â€ in which she played a mixed-race woman facing prejudice in 18th-century England.
Mainstream and of the moment, â€œLightsâ€ does not fit the awards-fare standard the way â€œBelleâ€ does. But Mbatha-Raw won criticsâ€™ awards for both films. â€œLightsâ€ was also praised for Minnie Driverâ€™s performance as Noniâ€™s stage mother, who encourages her daughter to pose provocatively in skimpy outfits.
Driverâ€™s character, a once-poor single mother who believes she is helping ensure Noniâ€™s success, does not come off as a complete creep, and thus further testifies to Prince-Bythewoodâ€™s ability to create complex female characters.
Prince-Bythewood spoke about her film by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Reggie Rock Bythewood, and their two boys.
Q: Why did you want to make a film set in the music world?
A: Some of my favorite films are music films. â€œWalk the Line,â€ â€œThe Rose.â€ I also have a love of hip-hop and R&B. But right now, it is a bit of a love-hate relationship.
Q: Why love-hate?
A: R&B used to be about loving someone, and there has been this shift. There seems to be an anger within the music. Itâ€™s not about love. It is about disrespect. It is about being with more than one woman.
Also, you see this blueprint of young female artists following (the idea) that hypersexuality will get noticed. And it works.
But what happens to these young women who are then trapped in that persona, even when it is not authentic to them? Thatâ€™s what the film is exploring.
Q: What qualities did Gugu Mbatha-Raw show, when you met, that inspired you to cast her?
A: Going in, I didnâ€™t know that much about her. It was my casting director, Aisha Coley, who said, â€œYou really should see this woman.â€ And within five minutes of the audition, I saw the movie.
She read four scenes, and every scene just got better and better. I am screaming in my mind, â€œIs this really happening?â€ I had seen so many other people, and nothing was clicking.
In the second part of her audition, she had to sing â€œBlackbird,â€ by Nina Simone, and she knocked it out.
Q: When Oscar nominations were announced, there was an uproar about director Ava DuVernay not being nominated for â€œSelma,â€ about a lack of diversity among acting nominees, and the overwhelmingly white, male quality of the best picture nominees. Have you faced challenges yourself, as a black woman directing feature films? And how did you feel about the nominations?
A: I have actually had many opportunities. Me being a black female director is not (what is) discriminated against. Whatâ€™s discriminated against are my choices. Being a writer-director, and the things I want to write and direct focused on women, and women of color â€“ that is the fight. Thatâ€™s what is so hard to get made.
It was disheartening, absolutely, to look at the nominations. There was such a breakthrough last year (â€œ12 Years a Slaveâ€ received nine nominations and won three Oscars, including best picture). It just felt like it had opened up.
It is twofold, because the industry has to green-light films that are on a level that deserve to be in the conversation, then those films need to be recognized. That is what happened last year.
Also, itâ€™s interesting the Vanity Fair â€œHollywoodâ€ cover last year was beautiful. It was a mix of black actors and white actors. And this year, you look at the cover, and it is David (Oyelowo, from â€œSelmaâ€) and nobody else. Like, whereâ€™s Gugu?
(Editorâ€™s note: Mbatha-Raw appears in a group shot inside, within a photo spread titled â€œBritish Edition.â€)
She gave two phenomenal performances in one year that were 180 degrees from each other. â€¦ I thought with the two together, she would explode, the same way Jennifer Lawrence exploded after â€œWinterâ€™s Bone.â€
Q: There was a late surge of awards-season support for her for â€œBeyond the Lights,â€ but then she wasnâ€™t nominated.
A: It is the reality of how the Oscars work. Coming out of (Septemberâ€™s Toronto International Film Festival), the same group of people who were talked about, it never changed, except that Marion Cotillard (an Oscar nominee for â€œTwo Days, One Nightâ€) was added to it. Once that group is set, itâ€™s very hard to break into that.
Call The Beeâ€™s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.