Fourteen years ago, Love & Basketball hit theaters, and even though so much time has passed the film still feels fresh. Maybe it's the great performances from everyone in the cast, especially Sanaa Lathan, or the fact that writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a special talent for depicting characters that are genuine and easy to relate to, no matter the situation.
Her latest film, Beyond the Lights, opens nationwide today. Just like Love & Basketball, it's a romance, but this one has a much deeper edge. It's also a stark look at the way fame and the music industry takes a toll on an up-and-coming performer named Noni.
"It's definitely a look at the underbelly of the music industry," writer-director Prince-Bythewood says, as we discuss the way her film critiques the music business. "I love hip-hop and R&B, but I just think it's going into a very angry, dangerous place right now, as well as a hyper-sexualized place that's becoming normal, and I don't think it's healthy. I think we as an audience, we only see the glamorous side of it; the videos, the instagram, and we think we want that. But there's so much under that that we don't realize."
See also: Review: Showbiz Drama Beyond the Lights Is Familiar but Cutting
As someone who does a lot of research for her films, Gina Prince-Bythewood was able to talk to a lot of singers, some who succumbed to an industry that wanted them to solely be a sex object and others who fought against it.
"There's definitely a blueprint for young artists, especially female artists, to come out hyper-sexualized. But the thing is, when you do that, you can't pull it back. That's what you came out with, that's your persona, and you have to live with that 24/7."
Beyond the Lights showcases that side of the industry and the way a woman must become the image her audience expects, even when she's alone. More importantly, it brings up a topic that is often so casually tossed aside with regards to performers: depression and suicide.
"You're getting all this love thrown at you for something that's not authentic to you. All that love is intoxicating and it's hard to give up, but when you can't turn off something that's inauthentic to you, I think that's really dangerous," she explains.
"And we see it time and time again, artists thinking about suicide. Mary J. Blige has talked about it and Fantasia, of course, and this young woman, Simone Battle, who passed away recently. So there's definitely something wrong going on in the industry and my hope with this film is that we can at least change the conversation."
While a romance film seems an unlikely place to start this discussion, Beyond the Lights kicks it off powerfully, much of it thanks to Prince-Bythewood's strong character writing. When asked about the reason for framing this conversation around a romance story, she responded by explaining how writing is great therapy for her and that she was personally dealing with similar issues as those going on in the film.
"For me, every script starts with character, and what these characters are going through. With this one, someone very close to me tried to kill themselves, changed their mind halfway through and was able to get help in time. It was obviously a shock, but in doing research and trying to help them, I was fascinated to learn that there's evidence that half the people that kill themselves had changed their mind and tried to stop," she elaborates.
"I just think about this person's life now and it's so much better, but in that moment, they could not see past the pain. They couldn't see their life past two or three seconds and I really wanted to explore that and put out the message of choose life and it was very important for me to put that out there."
Her choice to make this part of the film's main focus is one of the reasons why studios were rejecting the filmmaker left and right. "The studios thought it was too dark, and that it made it so the audience couldn't come back from it," she says before offering good reason for the scene to remain.
"I think you can identify with the character, because you don't need to be a pop star to be depressed or not have a voice. There's no economics addressing pain. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, or middle-class. Pain is relative. And I hate when people say, 'What are you complaining about?' Well, you don't know what happened in their childhood or past. And that's what I really wanted to explore in this. Honestly, I think the more truth that you put into a film, I hope that more people can identify with that and it makes it more universal."
Noni's story comes across as a personal and affecting one, but that wasn't the only issue the studios had with her film. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who Prince-Bythewood says she knew was Noni from the very moment she auditioned, isn't exactly a household name yet. When Beyond the Lights was still in the process of getting made, Mbatha-Raw hadn't yet graced our screens with her performance in Amma Asante's Belle. She was simply an unknown who the filmmaker saw as brave, bold, and willing to go wherever she needed her to go.
"They said she wasn't a star and they didn't want to bank a film on someone that's not a star," she admits. "The other thing they asked -- not every studio, but some -- was 'Could you consider making the Kaz character [Noni's love interest] white?' And, you know, no."
She laughs at the blunt way she says the last word and emphasizes, "That was my answer. It took longer to get it set up, but it was worth it to go through the two years of mind-numbing no's to just get that one yes. And that one yes was a place where I had creative control and could cast it the way I wanted."
Having creative control is hard enough in the industry, but being a woman of color making films with people of color in the lead roles is a rare opportunity. And, with not all that many genuine romances being made, Gina Prince-Bythewood had to fight for what she truly wanted.
"So few love stories are made, and not romantic comedies, but real love stories. And finding some with people of color is even more rare. I think it's dangerous that there's only a negative perception of love when it comes to people of color; that we don't fall in love, we don't get married, we don't love our children. The more that we can put a different image out there, hopefully we can change some perceptions as well, not only for our community but the world at large as well."
Being a female filmmaker of color and having to deal with the constant no's from studios though takes its toll on an artist. Even in a year where Prince-Bythewood is joined in rather wide theatrical releases by the aforementioned Asante and Ava DuVernay, whose film Selma comes out soon, it's a rare thing to see.
"It's really tough, and the toughest thing is -- in my mind, the movie is in my head, I'm seeing it every single day and I know what it could be and the potential of it and it's so hard to go into meeting after meeting and be told essentially that nobody's gonna want to see it."
She continues, "As an artist it's very hard to hear that over and over and over, so it does take stamina, but it also takes passion. That's why you have to be passionate about the stories you're writing because there's too many people there to knock you down, so if you're not passionate, it's very easy to just walk away. Or say, OK, let me write something else that I think people will like, as opposed to writing what's true to you and what you're passionate about, because I think, ultimately, that's what people will respond to: something that's different, something that only you could come up with."
Love & Basketball was a story that she thought was entirely specific to her, and while writing it, there were times where she thought whether or not anyone would come out to watch it. "But I think because it came from such a place of truth and it was a little different than what was out there at the time," she adds, "it had a lot of success."
And in both those films, Gina Prince-Bythewood manages to relate with her audience. One of the most powerful scenes in Beyond the Lights features the character of Noni removing her purple extensions and revealing her natural hair to the viewer, and more importantly, herself.
"I love that scene for a number of reasons," she begins. "Me, I was adopted by a Salvadorian mother and a white father and they had no idea what to do with my hair, and I really grew up hating the way I looked and hating my curls, and the little girl, she looked crazy at the beginning, that was my hair. So Noni, at such a young age, is being told that the way she is has to be fixed, that it's not good enough, and that's been happening year after year. So when we cut 15 years later from that little girl and she's got super-straight hair, and the long hair and purple extensions, I hope you wonder what damage has been done in between that time.
"For her to look in the mirror as an adult and take all of that off and be brave enough to look at her authentic self again, actually be proud of the way she looks, and go back to that little girl and those curls and love them as opposed to hate them, that spoke to me as a little girl struggling with her self-worth and I hope it does the same for girls now. It's about being brave enough to be your authentic self, whatever that means."
It's scenes like this, whether or not they're meant for younger audiences, that are helping to shift the conversation. In a time where young women of color are still being told that they should straighten their hair and aren't allowed to have their natural hair in school, these are the scenes we should be watching on screen. Even something as simple as Quvenzhané Wallis getting cast as the lead in the upcoming version of Annie can make a difference.
"The way I grew up, I just never, even in my own family, looked around and saw anyone that looked like me. We grew up in an all-white town so nobody looked like me, and it really does a number on your self-esteem to feel like you're invisible. And you turn on the TV and nobody looks like me," she divulges.
"What I hope to give when I fight so hard to make films that focus on people of color is really to make us visible and give people the feeling that I needed growing up of just seeing yourself and seeing yourself in a positive way, and that doesn't mean perfect, because perfect is boring and not realistic, but just human. So representation is everything and it's a fight that all people of color have to fight."
The topic of representation brought up something that many actresses of color have been saying over the last few years: that television is the way to go for more layered and interesting characters instead of bland stereotypes in film. As someone who had formerly written for the wonderful series A Different World, it'd be interesting to see the filmmaker slide into TV through a show of her own or even a miniseries. But that's not exactly in the plans for the near-future she says.
"It's interesting, I literally just had this conversation with Sanaa [Lathan] two days ago. The great thing about her is, because she's classically trained, that she can bounce between Broadway and film, but there should just be more work for her," she explains. "But she's also resisted TV. You're locked in for five years and you look up and your career's gone. I do feel at some point I'll develop a TV show. I just feel like I'd get bored."
Dedicating a long period of time to a project isn't something unfamiliar to the filmmaker though, as Gina Prince-Bythewood spent what seems like an eternity to get Beyond the Lights where it is today. Even in its title, the film has come a long way, as it was originally meant to be called Blackbird, just like the Nina Simone song that is featured throughout the film.
"It was Blackbird for four years and it should be called that," she says, and when one witnesses the film, they'll likely agree. Nina Simone's song is essential to the narrative and the character, with the filmmaker elaborating that Simone felt like an artist who Noni would admire and want to be like. Not only that, but her work spoke to her, especially as someone who considers music a large part of her writing process. To her, "Blackbird" felt as though it was a song written for the film she was writing.
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"But an independent film had the same title and they came out before us and didn't want to give it up. I understand though, I'd do the same if someone came to me and I had the rights. I was given some suggestions and Beyond the Lights just made sense. It's what the film is about."