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film fatales #8: beyond the lights (gina prince-bythewood, 2014)

This is the first Prince-Bythewood film I’ve seen (among her other work are Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees). She wrote the script for this, too, so it’s very much her production. The basic plot has something of a by-the-numbers feel ... young singer rises to the top, struggles with the lesser side of stardom, falls for a policeman, the usual. Toss in a mom who drives the daughter to succeed and you’ve got a movie. Prince-Bythewood does a nice job of showing things from the singer’s perspective, and there’s some good “beefcake is fair play” with Nate Parker, who looks like the former college wrestler he was whenever he takes off his shirt.

Mostly, Prince-Bythewood gets out the actors’ way and lets them show their stuff, which is a tricky move, since the plot turns are often melodramatic, which could take over the film. But nothing is going to get in the way of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who dominates the picture as the rising star, singing her own parts, giving a complex read of a character who is by turns confident, scared, and empty.

Minnie Driver does the Evil Mom with style, and Danny Glover, as the policeman’s dad, is properly subdued. But it’s Mbatha-Raw’s show. She’s the reason to watch. Other than her, there’s nothing special here.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

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