Writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood has made a name for herself bringing stories to the big screen that entertain, engage the audience and definitely makes us think. You know her from her previous projects like DISAPPEARING ACTS, LOVE & BASKETBALL and the mega hit THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. This year she has given us another fascinating look at relationships, fame and loving yourself in the film BEYOND THE LIGHTS. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, the movie is so much more than a great love story. It’s the story of what living life really means.
I had the honor to chat with Gina about her career and the film, and I began by reflecting on how BEYOND THE LIGHTS is unlight any story I remember going to be movies to see. “That he great thing about what I do,” she tole me. “I spend so much time in front of the computer writing (this film took about 2 years to write), I direct it, and then I’m locked in an editing room for months.. To be able to give it to an audience is incredible. People are leaving the film inspired, and that as a filmmaker is why I make movies.”
As a guy I have been promoting the film to other guys letting them know it’s so much more than a relationship movie. It’s about life. I asked Gina if that was something she knew going into the project. “I think it starts with the love of movies,” she explained. “I know what great movies can do for me, how they make me feel. I write what I want to see, so it starts with the characters first. If I have an idea and characters I fall in love with then I want to give them life and follow their lives. That’s the exciting thing about being a writer and director.”
The chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw (playing Noni) and Nate Parker (playing Kaz) is electric. The two of them together definitely sell the story to the viewer, and that is exactly what Gina saw in them. “We needed two actors willing to go there,” she said, “and these two actors certainly go there.”
What I loved the move about the flow of BEYOND THE LIGHTS was that you not only saw the journey and the struggle of Noni but Kaz as well. That is a great thing for the guys who see this film, because we can see ourselves represented. Gina said this was definitely intentional. “I do know when I write a film it’s a love story about two people. Both stories are equally important. Both (the male and female leads) have full lives. I love putting a positive male character on screen. It’s so rare.” She also told me it was important for Kaz to have flaws. “We don’t need him to be perfect,” she says. “We need him to be real.” Talking about the feedback regarding Kaz’s relationship with his father (played by Danny Glover) Gina says “Men haven’t been able to experience that on screen. It’s been great getting the feedback of guys being inspired to be better, and young men to be able to watch and learn to love the right way.”
This film is in part all about taking risks and having courage to stand up for what you believe in. I asked Gina how she has found the courage as a storyteller to tell stories that she wants to tell. “It’s an incredible fight to get these films made,”she explained, “and some people aren’t up for that fight. Part of the issue was that it was a love story with two people of color in the lead.” After being turned down repeatedly, however, she refused to give up. “If I’m not fighting—If I’m not making them—they’re not going to get made. So important for the world to see positive black characters, to see black people in love and fighting for each other. That’s what gets me passionate about fighting. It’s a story that I want to see.”
Her being willing to fight has resulted not only in some powerful films hitting theaters but some powerful respect in the industry. “It’s incredibly humbling and flattering,” Gina says. “You want the respect of your audience and your peers. They came because they trusted me as a filmmaker. I know what I want to put out in the world. To have that rewarded is an incredible feeling.
At the end of the day Gina wants an audience who sees her film to be taken away and leave inspired. With BEYOND THE LIGHTS she has definitely accomplished that.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS is being shown in theaters everywhere. Follow the film on Twitter at @BeyondtheLights and Gina Prince-Bythewood can be found on Twitter at @GPBMadeIt.