Welcome to this month’s edition of Roles in Retrospect! While the first two installments of this column highlighted actresses who stood out to me when I first saw them on-screen, there are also some stars I’ve seen take a little more time to land on my radar. This is the case with the actress I’ve chosen to focus on this month, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. While I vaguely recall her performances in 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast and 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time, it wasn’t until 2020’s Summerland that I found myself seeking out more of her work. This stunning sapphic period piece casts Mbatha-Raw as Vera opposite Gemma Arterton’s Alice, and the two have incredible chemistry together. With roles in feminist drama Misbehaviour, action-packed Marvel series Loki, and thrilling miniseries The Girl Before, Mbatha-Raw’s career has taken quite an interesting trajectory over recent years. However, one of her most compelling performances can be found in an earlier film of hers, which isn’t often talked about today.
Beyond the Lights premiered at TIFF in 2014 and was modestly received by critics, with Dionne Warwick even landing the film a Best Original Song nomination for “Grateful”. However, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s music industry-centered drama has been relatively overlooked when it comes to its performances, particularly that of its leading lady. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni Jean, an up-and-coming pop star who finds herself quite literally teetering on the brink of emotional collapse. But as fate (and the conventional trappings of romantic dramas) would have it, police officer Kaz Nichol (Nate Parker) interferes just in time, recognizing a potential in Noni that she struggles to identify within herself. This unexpected bond between them ends up becoming the catalyst for Noni to make decisions about her own life and career, without relying on the approval of others — such as momager Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) and PR-boyfriend Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) — like she has for so long.
While the film itself does fall into somewhat cheesy and predictable territory at times, Mbatha-Raw’s performance undoubtedly elevates the material. She portrays both Noni’s public and private personas convincingly, taking the character from sexual, confident pop star when all eyes are on her to vulnerable, soulful songstress when she’s away from the spotlight. However, where Beyond the Lights really lets Mbatha-Raw shine is in the moments when it allows Noni to be seen in the space between these two identities, existing as her whole self instead of fragments of it. There are several instances throughout where we see Noni act out of her own agency, two of which involve very different stage performances. Mbatha-Raw plays out these moments in such a way that you can’t help but be emotionally affected by them, feeling Noni’s repulsion in one scene and her catharsis in another.
Since the monthly theme for Flip Screen this month is “revolution,” I feel it’s also worth touching on the relevance of this theme in relation to Noni’s character development. After falling into complacency rather than authenticity for so long, Noni’s desire to shed the persona that’s been crafted for her feels like something of a personal revolution. It may not take place on a grand scale, but it doesn’t have to in order for it to have a ripple effect; her transformation is nevertheless a poignant one, and Mbatha-Raw does an excellent job making it feel authentic. While the story at the heart of the film is powerful, it’s her stellar performance here that ultimately makes Beyond the Lights worth watching, regardless of whether you’re familiar with her work already or discovering it for the first time.