It starts with the hair.
Beyond the Lights begins in 1998 with single mother and future momager Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) racing her daughter Noni (India Jean-Jacques) around their South London neighborhood of Brixton in search of a hair salon. The one she finds is closing, but she begs the woman inside to give them just a few minutes and a few tips, pointing to the adorably bespectacled 10-year-old Noni and explaining that the girl's about to compete in a talent contest, and that Macy has no idea what to do with her hair.
The salon owner, who is black, looks at the desperate white woman and the neglected riot of corkscrew curls on her biracial child's head, and relents. And the woman's there in the audience the next day to hear Noni belt out Nina Simone's "Blackbird" and, to Macy's fury, be given only second place, the runner-up to a blonde tap dancer.
Noni will grow up to be a rising singer played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and that flashback introduction serves as an unplanned echo of one in the British actor's other movie this year, the period drama Belle, in which she plays a mixed-race orphan raised by her Lord Chief Justice uncle. Her character, Belle, is caught in a social purgatory thanks to her aristocratic inheritance and the color of her skin, but it's her hair that serves as a sign of how isolated she's been from that aspect of her identity. On a trip to London, Belle is caught struggling to get a comb through it by Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), the black servant working in the house, who gently tells her, "You must start from the ends, miss," and sits the young woman in front of a mirror in order to show her how.
These two films are the tentpoles for what's been a very good year for the radiant Mbatha-Raw. They're also part of what's been a particularly eloquent year of black hair on screen in general, and how it can be used as a marker of identity, as social armor or constriction, and as a source of battles of race, class, and perception, in a way that's often been left out of the wider conversation.
How they wear their hair is, for instance, a major and much-discussed identifier for all of the main characters in Justin Simien's Dear White People, from Tyler James Williams' outcast afro to Tessa Thompson's painstaking pompadour, with Teyonah Parris delivering a calculated monologue about weaves and having a regal moment of taking off what turns out to have always been a straight black wig and replacing it with cascading blonde curls before a party. On How to Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis' removal of a wig, then eyelashes, then makeup, was played out like a warrior shedding pieces of plate mail after returning from war, her formidable character left bare and open at the end of the day.
For the adult Noni, an R&B artist with a debut album ready to drop and a look honed for magazine spreads, her extensions are just part of the sex kitten image, along with the killer nails, the five-inch stilettos, and the red carpet dress that's mainly made up of strategically positioned gold chains. We skip right from that little girl to a grown woman writhing her way through the music video for her big single "Masterpiece," featuring a few verses from Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly), the rapper she was set up with by her label, and with whom she's developed a half-real romance. Someone compliments her on the long violet tresses she sports to the Billboard Awards to accept an award for the hit. At the hotel afterward, she considers taking a swan dive off her balcony, and it's only the intervention of the cop, Kaz (Nate Parker), assigned to guard her room, that saves her life.
Beyond the Lights is written and directed by Love & Basketball's Gina Prince-Bythewood, and it's a deliciously old-school showbiz melodrama that would make Diana Ross proud. Its trappings are very of the moment, from Noni's pitch-perfect Rihanna-esque songs to the brawl that breaks out over her during the BET Awards, but its backstage themes of a star being torn apart by her own fame are timeless. Noni's a captive songbird, and her designer outfits often reveal a lot of skin while closing tight around her neck with collars or chains. Parroting other people's words and smiling for the camera, she's dying inside, until Kaz saves her, first literally by pulling her off the ledge, then spiritually by proving he actually sees her and not the fantasy girl.
There's a healthy dose of fantasy to Kaz, too, Noni's knight in a blue uniform whose plans to run for political office could easily be capsized by his connection to a scandalous music artist ("We both know this one ain't first lady material," his father, played by Danny Glover, warns). Kaz never really comes to life the way that Noni does, though Parker cuts a dashing figure as a reliable savior, whether smuggling his lover past paparazzi or stripping off his shirt to bandage her hand when she smashes her own photos in a fit of misery.
Kaz is a static figure, but that's OK — Noni provides enough drama for the two of them. The Harlequin aspects of their romance, which includes a heated encounter on a private jet and some canoodling on a beach in Mexico, are countered by the raw distress Noni broadcasts as she tries to break free from the path on which she's been set.
This includes coming to terms with her controlling mother (whom Driver plays with a ferocious hunger that the character can barely bother to disguise), her celebrity sort-of boyfriend, and her label — whose execs, despite Noni's immediate covering up of the suicide attempt, don't like any hints that their shiny diva has real problems. But more than any of that, she has to come to terms with the image into which she's contorted herself, one that includes the ideas of swagger and being on top, despite having ceded a lot of her immediate power.
Beyond the Lights, for all of its outsized drama and the conservative slant to its views on sexuality (Noni doesn't own her sensuality — it's part of how she's victimized), has definite bite in the way it portrays how quickly celebrity fawning can turn into a feeding frenzy as soon as there's a drop of blood in the water, particularly for women. You can be the hottest thing in the world, right until someone declares you a whore for not performing exactly the way they want you to.
Noni has trapped herself in her gilded Hollywood Hills mansion, her relationships almost entirely transactional. It's not the singing that's the problem, it's the machine that she has become a part of — and when she first decides to remove herself from it, she reaches for scissors and carefully snips out her weave, pulling away those long purple locks to reveal the same springy curls that belonged to that little girl with the big voice in the film's opening. Yes, it's hair, but for Beyond the Lights, it also can be a symbol of the difference between being the woman they want you to be and being the one you are.