Honor thy parents: ‘Beyond The Lights’

What happens when children dare to go their own way?

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in “Beyond the Lights”

Gina Prince-Bythewood solidified her reputation in Hollywood right off the bat with her debut feature, the 2000 hit “Love & Basketball,” a surprisingly adult examination of love and romance and the games people play en route to winning it all. Multiplexes and art houses never lack for romantic variations, although broad comedic routines dominate, but Prince-Bythewood gave us the mythic unicorn of the genre: black-on-black love with only the most organic infusion of humor. And the stars, Omar Epps and, especially, Sanaa Lathan, went on from there to lead the charge, carrying the black love banner proudly but not much better than under the narrative care of Prince-Bythewood.

We always felt the stakes mattered in the story of Quincy (Epps) and Monica (Lathan), childhood next-door neighbors with dreams of playing professional basketball. Quincy struggled with the legacy of a father who not only made the NBA but also proved to be a most unfaithful family man while Monica faced the uphill battle of gender equality in sports at each and every level. Inevitably, these factors created an ongoing love-hate fission that had to be overcome.

It is fitting that Prince-Bythewood returns to the pop cultural court again, so to speak, with “Beyond the Lights,” a seemingly familiar replay of love games on the big stage. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a girl on fire, a gifted and talented singer breaking onto the scene with the sure misdirection of sex appeal and branded artifice, but the effort begins to take its toll on her. In a bleak and frantic moment, Noni issues a cry for help (through a suicide attempt) that is seen and heard by Kaz (Nate Parker), a rookie cop with heart and ambition on his side, as well.

Love blooms, certainly, but in key ways takes a backseat to the dilemmas Noni and Kaz must confront in their relationships with their parents. As a single mom, Noni’s mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), assumed the role of demanding stage mother, steering Noni to use any and all assets at her disposal to reach the top, no matter the costs. The lifeline Kaz offers Noni inspires her to start down the road to taking control of her own destiny, which ultimately means standing up to Macy.

Kaz also deals with his parental power play, although his father, Captain Nicol (Danny Glover), has a warmer and more benign approach. Nicol seeks to use Machiavellian, behind-the-scenes influence to set Kaz on a pathway onto the political landscape. To do this, he builds Kaz, step by step, into the perfect candidate – a charismatic, morally centered public servant with his eyes on the prize.

For Kaz’s father, it is obvious the dream of climbing the ladder was not available to him (at least not to the extent that it exists for Kaz), so he wants to live through his son. And because he is able to convince Kaz to embrace the dream without overt strong-arm tactics, success appears within their grasp. It is only when Kaz instinctively does the right thing, by saving Noni’s life and surrendering to his growing feelings for her, that he begins to question what matters most to him.

Noni’s situation, far more familiar to audiences in this day and age of reality television and social media, bears the distinction of triggering an immediate negative response in us. The pop cultural landscape is littered with instances of enduring stars and thwarted strivers pushed to the emotional and psychological breaking point. Noni’s hard journey shows us that it is possible to “win” on your own terms and still honor the pure aims of a parent, but questions linger as to the future of the relationship dynamic between parent and child.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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