Interview: Gina Prince-Bythewood of “Beyond the Lights”

Posted on November 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

It was an honor to speak to one of my favorite filmmakers, Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer/director of one of this year’s best romantic dramas, “Beyond the Lights.” As I spoke to her, she had just received word that Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who stars as Noni in the film, had been nominated for a Gotham award.

Copyright 2014 Relativity Media
Copyright 2014 Relativity Media

You must be so proud of this great recognition for Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

It was a pretty phenomenal morning to wake up to that.  Gugu started working on the character really for two years but really hard-core for six months in terms of being in the dance studio for hours, a couple of days a week and then the vocal studio with the vocal coach and the amount of work she put into this character knowing that this character is a hundred and eighty degrees from who Gugu is.  You know how bold and brave she had to be to put this out there and to go there and we knew we had to go there given what is happening in the industry now and needing to compete with that and having the knowledge that you have to lead an audience into a world before you can lead them out. So, the fact that she bought into the vision of the piece and really went there — it is just a beautiful thing that she is being recognized and not only for the incredible work she did but in terms of just the preparation. But she gives a really phenomenal performances. I love that it is being recognized.

As a woman who writes and directs, you did a particularly good job of addressing the objectifying elements of what goes on in show business today. Was that an important theme for you to address?

Absolutely. first as a woman who is seeing what happens especially in the music industry and the blueprints that the young artists have to follow to make any sort of noise when they first come out, it really is hypersexualized. But also as a mother of two boys in seeing the trickle-down effect that is happening, the hyper sexualization becoming normal and teen girls and teen boys – and the things that they are doing now are very frightening to me as a mother. And we really are hoping that the film can change the conversation.

I like what you said a moment ago by taking people into the world before you can take them out of it. Tell me a little bit about what that means to you.

Copyright 2014 Relativity Media
Copyright 2014 Relativity Media

For me to put this out there, I mean it was hard shooting the music video as at the beginning of the film and putting that out there in the world and telling an actor to put that energy out. We went there because it was necessary. This is the character that five minutes later is on the edge of a balcony about to jump and we really needed to show the psychological effects on a 10-year-old girl who just wants to sing, who’s probably in front of a mirror singing into a hairbrush and no one dreams about being in an artist and putting that kind of energy out but to make this dramatic jump to that music video and I want the immediate question of how did that happen, how did that little girl become this and what is the psychological effects of that film. So we had to push it and we had to go there because it was important to the story that we were telling.

You have said that you were very glad to be working with Nate Parker again on this film.  What makes him one of your favorite actors?

I love Nate as an actor because he has no inhibitions and he would just go for it and that karaoke was a scene that he had to do that. Obviously he is not a singer and he just wanted to do it live and whatever came out of his mouth came out of his mouth. There was a real crowd out there but he just threw himself into it and it is so great the reactions that the audience get when they see it because this character has been so reserved and serious. It was really important to see them thrive in Mexico, both of them letting go and finding their voice and falling in love. And that was a really important aspect to see his character see what Noni brings out in him as well as what he brings out in Noni.

What is next for you?

The next one I am going to write, I’m very excited about it but I can’t talk about it too much. It does deal with female friendships.  All my films have a personal aspect and this one is no different, so I’m very excited. And it will be a little more comedic in tone.

You create some of the best love stories that I’ve seen on screen and it is a compliment to say they remind me of the classic romances of the ‘40s with actresses like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Are you a fan of that era of movies?

That is a tremendous compliment, thank you. I have to say the great things about film school is being exposed to films that you normally would never see and you get to seei them on the big screen, films like “The Apartment,” which is I think is such a great film influenced on me, “The Rose” is a fantastic film that came out in the ‘70s, “Lady Sings the Blues,” I love that type of romance, to wrecked by movie emotionally and then be built back up and leave inspired.  Those are the kinds of films I love to watch and so for me it is writing what I want to see.

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Beyond the Lights

Posted on November 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2104 Relativity Media
Copyright 2104 Relativity Media

“Beyond the Lights” is a welcome return to the grand traditions of movie romance, with sizzling chemistry between gorgeous, fabulously charismatic stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. And it also has some very astute insights about family, ambition, and the pressure put on young women, especially those in the performing arts, to present themselves as sexually provocative and available.

Minnie Driver plays Macy Jean, a ruthlessly ambitious stage mother who sees her talented young daughter, Noni, as her ticket out of poverty and powerlessness. We first see them at a singing competition when Noni is a little girl (India Jean-Jacques). Her performance of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” gets her a trophy that her mother smashes to the ground because she did not come in first. Then Noni is grown up (Mbatha-Raw), singing and dancing in a steamy music video, featuring a successful rapper named Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly). Macy Jean is pushing Noni hard to do whatever it takes to become a star, and she is on the brink of a breakthrough, with an upcoming television appearance that should launch her into superstardom.
But in the midst of all of this sound and fury, Noni feels lost.  The image her mother has created for her is so overpowering that she does not know who she is anymore.  She is a singer with a million-dollar voice, but she is also a person who feels that it belongs to someone else, that she is lost somewhere beneath the glitter and fakery.  Alone in her hotel room, she goes out the window and sits on the ledge, contemplating allowing herself to just fall off.

She is rescued by a cop assigned to her security detail.  His name is Kaz (Parker) and he grabs her hand and looks into her eyes.  He says “I see you.”  And she believes he does.

Of course, the incident is spun for the press.  “We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide ain’t sexy.”  Noni jokes about the risks of combining champagne and stilettos and poses with her handsome savior.  But Kaz did see Noni.  He saw her the way she wanted to be seen.  And she saw him, too.

Kaz has a demanding parent, too, a father (Danny Glover) who wants him to run for office, and knows that Noni is not first lady material.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) keeps the love story glamorous but never soapy, through the subtle, moving performances by Mbatha Raw and Parker, and a script that respects the characters, with thoughtful details and easy humor.  In the very beginning, Macy Jean is frantic because she does not know how to handle her biracial child’s hair.  Later, Noni is wearing a purple-streaked weave for her music video.  And when she begins to be happy again, she frees her hair as she finds her true voice.  Prince-Bythewood’s confidence in her own voice as much a pleasure of this film as the love story and the star power, which add up to the best date movie of the year.

Parents should know that this film includes very provocative sexual imagery and musical performances with very skimpy clothing, sexual references and situations, strong and crude language, attempted suicide, and tense family confrontations.

Family discussion:  What does it mean to “do small things in a great way?”  How did Noni and Kaz help each other? Why did being on the brink of great success was Noni in despair?  What can we do to protect girls from the overwhelming focus on appearance?

If you like this, try: “The Rose,” “The Bodyguard,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Dreamgirls,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Gypsy,” and “Mahogany”

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Date movie Drama Gender and Diversity Race and Diversity Romance

Writing for the Industry: Black Writers Talk About Their Work

Posted on August 9, 2014 at 7:00 am

This afternoon at 3PM, the 8th annual Leimert Park Village Book Fair in Los Angeles will host a “Writing for the Industry” panel, which will aid “beginning, advanced and aspiring screenwriters through the steps of writing their first feature length script, getting representation, being staffed on a TV show, pitching to studio executives and more.”  The panel will take place in the Community Room at the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza, located at 3650 Martin Luther King Blvd in L.A.

Moderator writer/filmmaker Erica Watson (“Roubado,”), will present Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights”), Rob Edwards (“The Princess and the Frog”) Lena Waithe (“Bones,” “Dear White People”), Abdul Williams (“Lottery Ticket”), Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (Co-executive producer “Southland” and “Sleepy Hollow”) and Tyger Williams (“Menace II Society”).

And if you can’t make it to LA, take a look at this advice on writing from Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.”

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Race and Diversity Writers