In “Beyond the Lights,” now available on DVD and video on demand, British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw commands the screen as a Rihanna-like pop star. She exudes raw sensuality but also suggests an underlying vulnerability.
To create this combination – so common to real-life superstars – Mbatha-Raw and “Lights” writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood did their homework, Prince-Bythewood said in a phone interview.
Mbatha-Raw, at the director’s urging, read biographies about Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, and watched “The Rose,” the 1980 film that starred Bette Midler as a Janis Joplin-like rock singer. Together, star and director attended performances by Rihanna, Beyoncé and Adele to gain a better sense of what makes musical superstars special.
There’s flash and sizzle to “Lights,” as well as a “Bodyguard”-esque love story between Mbatha-Raw’s character, Noni, and a cop (Nate Parker). The pair bond after the cop rescues Noni, who is troubled by career demands, from a suicide attempt.
Ultimately, the film is about Noni finding her own way – a Prince-Bythewood specialty. The filmmaker has been a friend to actresses since she made “Love & Basketball” in 2000, starring Sanaa Lathan.
In 2008, Prince-Bythewood made a fine adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s female-centric novel “The Secret Life of Bees” with Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo.
With “Lights,” which hit theaters this past November, Prince-Bythewood might have helped introduce the world’s next big movie star. A British TV veteran, Mbatha-Raw broke out earlier in 2014 in the period piece “Belle,” in which she played a mixed-race woman facing prejudice in 18th-century England.
Mainstream and of the moment, “Lights” does not fit the awards-fare standard the way “Belle” does. But Mbatha-Raw won critics’ awards for both films. “Lights” was also praised for Minnie Driver’s performance as Noni’s stage mother, who encourages her daughter to pose provocatively in skimpy outfits.
Driver’s character, a once-poor single mother who believes she is helping ensure Noni’s success, does not come off as a complete creep, and thus further testifies to Prince-Bythewood’s ability to create complex female characters.
Prince-Bythewood spoke about her film by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Reggie Rock Bythewood, and their two boys.
Q: Why did you want to make a film set in the music world?
A: Some of my favorite films are music films. “Walk the Line,” “The Rose.” I also have a love of hip-hop and R&B. But right now, it is a bit of a love-hate relationship.
Q: Why love-hate?
A: R&B used to be about loving someone, and there has been this shift. There seems to be an anger within the music. It’s not about love. It is about disrespect. It is about being with more than one woman.
Also, you see this blueprint of young female artists following (the idea) that hypersexuality will get noticed. And it works.
But what happens to these young women who are then trapped in that persona, even when it is not authentic to them? That’s what the film is exploring.
Q: What qualities did Gugu Mbatha-Raw show, when you met, that inspired you to cast her?
A: Going in, I didn’t know that much about her. It was my casting director, Aisha Coley, who said, “You really should see this woman.” And within five minutes of the audition, I saw the movie.
She read four scenes, and every scene just got better and better. I am screaming in my mind, “Is this really happening?” I had seen so many other people, and nothing was clicking.
In the second part of her audition, she had to sing “Blackbird,” by Nina Simone, and she knocked it out.
Q: When Oscar nominations were announced, there was an uproar about director Ava DuVernay not being nominated for “Selma,” about a lack of diversity among acting nominees, and the overwhelmingly white, male quality of the best picture nominees. Have you faced challenges yourself, as a black woman directing feature films? And how did you feel about the nominations?
A: I have actually had many opportunities. Me being a black female director is not (what is) discriminated against. What’s discriminated against are my choices. Being a writer-director, and the things I want to write and direct focused on women, and women of color – that is the fight. That’s what is so hard to get made.
It was disheartening, absolutely, to look at the nominations. There was such a breakthrough last year (“12 Years a Slave” received nine nominations and won three Oscars, including best picture). It just felt like it had opened up.
It is twofold, because the industry has to green-light films that are on a level that deserve to be in the conversation, then those films need to be recognized. That is what happened last year.
Also, it’s interesting the Vanity Fair “Hollywood” cover last year was beautiful. It was a mix of black actors and white actors. And this year, you look at the cover, and it is David (Oyelowo, from “Selma”) and nobody else. Like, where’s Gugu?
(Editor’s note: Mbatha-Raw appears in a group shot inside, within a photo spread titled “British Edition.”)
She gave two phenomenal performances in one year that were 180 degrees from each other. … I thought with the two together, she would explode, the same way Jennifer Lawrence exploded after “Winter’s Bone.”
Q: There was a late surge of awards-season support for her for “Beyond the Lights,” but then she wasn’t nominated.
A: It is the reality of how the Oscars work. Coming out of (September’s Toronto International Film Festival), the same group of people who were talked about, it never changed, except that Marion Cotillard (an Oscar nominee for “Two Days, One Night”) was added to it. Once that group is set, it’s very hard to break into that.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.