At its core, Beyond the Lights is a story about what happens everyday with pop stars. The movie makes an especially firm statement about women in music. For her first film since 2008's The Secret Life of Bees, writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood zooms in on an industry where identity, money, power and family are muddled.
The story follows Noni (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) through her awkward preteen stage to her adult experience dealing with the pressures of the music industry. Everything changes the moment love interest Kaz (Nate Parker) tells Noni, "I see you." From there, her life becomes a mess of tabloid rumors, power struggles and pressures from all ends, including her mom (Minnie Driver), who's both a protective force and a threat to her independence.
Ahead of the film's release in theaters today, I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about her writing process, her personal connection to the characters, the music industry's body politics, and a particularly powerful scene she describes as "a form of rape onstage."
What initially drew me to this film was that it deals with music stars on a deeper level than what people see. Fans don't know what goes into making a star and how much control female pop stars in particular are forced to give up.
What about this world appealed to you enough to write a story about it?
I love R&B and hip-hop. It's what I listen to, and I have two boys who are 13 and 10 who love the music as well. But I can't play the radio in the car anymore with them in it because of the direction that it's gone—and not just with men, but with women as well. It's the genre I love that I see going in a dangerous, angry place. There seems to be a blueprint for the way that young artists need to come out hyper-sexualized to get noticed, and it works. But you get trapped in that persona and you're competing to push the envelope. There's really nowhere else to go but over a cliff, which is where our character [Noni] is at the beginning of the film.
That's not to say all sexuality is bad in music. It is authentic to some artists. My issue is really for those who are pushed by managers and handlers and don't have any say or agency in the images that they're putting out. You look at the difference between Beyoncé, who is making her own decision—she runs it—as opposed to someone like Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, who changed up their game. Ciara came out one way but suddenly switched it up and you wonder why, what changed, because you were dope the way you were. So what was it that made you feel you had to push this other thing?
How do you think the female pop star has evolved from when you were growing up?
I think it's the artist. I mean, you think about Madonna back in the day. There's only one Madonna, but she certainly had control over her career and what she was putting out and that was her choice. One of the very first influences of the script and this character was Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe—their relationships with their mothers, as well as the hyper-sexualized persona they had to put out at an early age and try and maintain. I had Gugu read those biographies. So it's been happening forever. It's been happening in art, in music, and not just hip-hop and R&B, but pop and rock-and-roll. It's always going to be going on. It just seems that at this point right now, there's a definite competition to push the envelope. There are times when I'm watching videos and my mouth is literally open, like, what am I watching right now. So I just want to change the conversation.
You spoke to a few women artists to make some of the storyline more authentic. I'm curious how you then went about processing that information.
I was very fortunate to be able to talk to a number of artists—some I had worked with before; some who had followed the path, and others who fought against it. They knew I wasn't going to turn around and talk, so they were very honest. Research is everything to a writer, so I read articles on Mary J. Blige, who talked about being in a place so low that she thought about suicide. Fantasia, of course. Kid Cudi. People have been very honest about what the music industry can do to you, and there is a pattern.
What was the theme that stood out to you the most while speaking to these artists? Was there one thing that kept recurring?
It's the moment where they felt alone, when they were pushed to do something they didn't want to do. For one artist, it was that moment where the photographer asked her to take her shirt off and she looked around for help and nobody was there to help. That stayed with me and obviously is reflected in the movie.
There's a strong statement about power and women artists having to give up their choice. Did the artists you spoke to give a reason for why they put their control in other people's hands or was it more about feeling powerless because of the system?
Most of the artists I talked to started out when they were younger. And if you don't know who you are, when you gain success it's very hard to find yourself within that industry. You're getting so much love thrown at you, but that love is coming toward something that's not authentic to you. So you're afraid to pull back because then you're gonna lose that love. Everyone around you, their livelihood is dependent on your success, so you don't know who to trust. And you can't trust anyone because you know the decisions are based on how much money can be made, not what is best for you. Growing up not having that kind of trust—and in Noni's case, her own mother putting the business ahead of her—is so damaging.
Since the relationship between Noni and Macy was based on your own story of being adopted and finding your mom, how emotional was it writing Macy?
It's interesting because she originally was not written white. My husband was the one who said, "You know what, just be more truthful. Talk about what you went through and use this film to delve into your personal life and your truth." It was such a great note for him to give me and it really opened up the script tremendously. It's very interesting with audiences who really dislike her until the scene in Mexico when she sits down with her daughter and explains why she's pushed her so hard, the truth about where she came from, and her parents not wanting her because she was black. That's really my truth. I love that the audience understands her in that moment, because she's not a monster. She's somebody who was pushing her daughter and trying to find her own self worth and things got very misguided along the way.
When you see parents who are managers to their children, the decisions that you make start to be more about the business as opposed to your child's well-being. Things get clouded. Because the child wants unconditional love and you want to know that your well-being is all that your parents care about. When you start seeing decisions made that are counter to that, then you lose trust. It's a fascinating dynamic for a mother and daughter. I think Gugu and Minnie brought it and created a really complex, manipulative, interesting relationship.
The kitchen scene was intense.
[Laughs]. That was their favorite scene. They could not wait to shoot that scene.
And the one between Noni and Kid Culprit, who's played by Machine Gun Kelly. That's meant to be uncomfortable, but did you struggle with how far to take it?
That scene was honestly tougher for MGK to shoot than anybody, which was surprising to me. I wanted a real hip-hop artist and I remember going through a ton of videos. I was looking at all hip-hop artists. I wasn't particularly looking for a white hip-hop artist. I saw this video he did called "Wild Boy," which is so extra, and that's him. I auditioned him, and he fought so hard for this role and flew himself in twice to read. I thought he was the best person I saw and he was right for the role. It was fascinating when we got to that scene because I knew we had to push it. She's trying to take some control back in her life and not open that jacket and reveal herself. It should be a moment of triumph for her and he takes that control away. We talked about it as being a form of rape onstage. I had to push him. He kept saying, "Please let Gugu know that you're making me do this." We trimmed it to get the PG-13. The director's cut is a little more dramatic. It was important because he is humiliating her on stage. But it was very tough for him as a person and as an actor to go there.
It's powerful. I thought the connection between Noni and Kaz was really natural. And it's great that even though he saves her in the literal sense, their growth is mutual. How do you go about creating a female character who's independent but also vulnerable with the man?
It was very important for me that this film was not just about a man saving her. It was about a woman saving herself. You can't love unless you love yourself, and that was really an important theme that I wanted to put out there. This is a woman who's literally on the edge and wanted to let go. She has to climb back from that, both physically and emotionally and discover in herself what's worth saving. Yes, Kaz was there to let her know there was something worth saving, but she had to ultimately find out what that was in herself. So I'm very glad that you said that because the film is really about two people saving each other.
What do you try to keep in mind when writing a male character like Kaz, as far as his qualities?
What's important for me is to put positive black male characters up on screen, because it's so rare and there's so much negativity. The key is that being a good dude and having integrity and being respectful to women does not mean you have to be soft. You know, Kaz is not perfect. The perfect character is not interesting. What's interesting is a human character. For me, I feel it's being true to who this guy was without making him soft. I've got a great husband and we've been married 16 years. All the great qualities of Kaz, I find in my husband and in the men in my life, so it's really about putting that image up on screen for other young brothers to follow. It's a harder fight to get love stories with people of color made. Hence, why it took four years to get this up on screen. But it's worth the fight because it's important to change the perception that black people don't fall in love and can stay together and respect each other. It's healthy for us as a community, but it's also important for the world to see that as well.
I want to ask about Drake in particular, because I feel like he could be a character in one of your movies.
Because he has that soft and hard side. He raps about relationships on an emotional level.
Well, his song "Hold On, We're Going Home" was such a huge influence on Noni and Kaz when we were shooting. That song was Noni and Kaz. We actually shot one scene where after the club, Noni is laying there and thinking about her and Kaz from the night before. That scene was shot when everybody had left the room. It was just the actors, me and the DP. I put on that song and just told them to feel it and dance, just feel the music. It was really like our song throughout the filming. It was very cool. It's a beautiful song.
In a previous interview, you recalled an audience member who came up to you and said he wanted to be a better man after seeing Beyond the Lights.
Yeah, that comment blew me away, but there was another one early on in the process when we were first doing our preview audiences. It was the first time I showed the film to an audience. There was a 17-year-old black boy who said that before, he didn't really believe in hope and love, but the movie changed him. As a filmmaker, that's why we make movies. It's great to entertain, but to be able to change someone's perception like that and maybe change the direction of their life, that's an incredible responsibility. I take that very, very seriously.
That was my feeling with Love & Basketball, which I saw when I was 16. It affected some of my views on love and relationships. Obviously, you also have a deep emotional attachment to that film.
[Laughs] I have so many feelings about that movie. Foremost, it was my first film, and it was such a personal film. And it was such a fight to get it made. The fact that 14 years later, it's still endured is amazing to me. It never gets old when somebody comes up and tells me that they love the film. It's amazing. It's interesting, too, because I just got a chance to see it on the big screen. A group put on a screening for it, and I was able to sit and watch it in the audience. I got to bring my boys to see it as well. I spoke to [Love & Basketball leads] Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan this past weekend and interviewed them about Love & Basketball for this documentary we're doing for BET. It's such a great part of their lives and they're so proud of it as well.
What kind of statement did you want to make about the fans' involvement in the pop star image? At one point, Noni looks at her Twitter account and sees a hashtag poking fun at her.
I want people to remember that there's somebody behind those tweets reading it and being affected by it. People think stars aren't human or have feelings. We put them on a pedestal or we act as if you can just say anything about anybody. It's so easy to say something snarky on Twitter or to diss somebody, but there's somebody reading it. To make people think for a second, before you send that out about the way Rihanna looked that day, is it really necessary? Do you really need to put that out into world? Think about it to yourself and then move on.
Did you have a personal attachment to "Blackbird"? Noni sings it twice, and it's an obvious narrative thread.
When I was writing the script, I knew it was going to be a Nina Simone song. I love her work. It's very influential on me, the way that she's so truthful and raw and real in her work. And brave. So I knew I wanted a song by Nina Simone. I knew that would've been someone this character would aspire to be. My husband and I have every Nina Simone album, so it was just going through them and listening. Suddenly, I heard "Blackbird" and it was instantaneous. If felt like it was written for the script and I was so excited to find it. It really influenced the film. I mean, the film was called Blackbird originally, but the song speaks so beautifully to her as a child and as an adult. I'm grateful to [Nina Simone's] estate as well for allowing us to use the song.
The film's opening scene addresses black hair issues, and there's another part where Noni takes out her weave. How important was it to specifically represent the black woman's struggle in the music industry?
Every time I've done a magazine shoot the first question they ask is, Will I straighten my hair? And I've always said no. Because I grew up hating my curls. I mean, hated it. Hating looking in the mirror. Everyone around me, my parents being white—one of my sisters has blonde hair, blue eyes, and I was so jealous of her growing up. It wasn't until later in life that I was able to embrace and fall in love with my curls. That was this character Noni as a little girl being told that the way she is, is not good enough and needs to be fixed. You think of little girls sitting in the salon and getting their hair straightened and the pain of going through that.
It's not just the physical pain. It's what that can do to anyone psychologically. So I really wanted to put that in the world. For Noni, that moment [when she takes out her weave] is her going back to her truth and being brave enough to do that for herself. And to show this man that she loves her truth. However you want to be is my point. Be authentic to who you are. Don't create an image that you think people want.
Images via Relativity