Beyond the Lights

Nina Simone's Blackbird (as different in tenor and affect from the Beatles' Blackbird as night is from day) is featured prominently in writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights.  We first hear it as a 10-year-old Noni Jean (India Jean-Jacques) takes wing in song at a talent show in London. We hear it again, near the end of the film, after hip-hop diva Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has nearly crashed and burned from the demands of stardom. Noni's earlier attempt to end her torment is prevented by L.A. cop and political hopeful Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), who sees a damaged soul under the street swagger. Noni hires Kaz as her bodyguard over the objections of his father (Danny Glover), her mother (Minnie Driver, where have you been?) and unbeknownst to her boyfriend, Kid Culprit (played by Cleveland rapper MGK). And, as the kids say, "shit go bad, for real for real." Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) doesn't avoid film cliches entirely (I would love to get through an urban melodrama without somebody on-screen getting slapped) but the freshness she does offer -- many insights on identity and contentment -- makes up for the more predictable passages. And besides, Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Parker (The Great Debaters) are sizzling hot. There are worse ways to spend your time than watching impossibly beautiful people romp in the surf in T.J. Recommended.


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