This morning's Screen Actors Guild nominations made one thing abundantly clear that has been pretty much at the forefront of much of the awards discussion this season: there is room to maneuver in the lead and supporting actress categories. Jennifer Aniston (“Cake”) and Naomi Watts (“St. Vincent”) each found an angle and made their way in. But there are two performances in one film that frankly deserve to be in the conversation to win each of those categories, yet neither is getting any traction. It's time we talked about Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver in Gina Prince-Bythewood's “Beyond the Lights.”
First and foremost, HitFix readers aren't new to the banging of this drum as for the longest time, our own Greg Ellwood has been out in front on this title, championing it all the way back at the Toronto Film Festival. For my part, I didn't get around to seeing it until very recently, and it blew my skirt up. It's frankly one of the most important films of the year, a female character study that is explicitly about stripping away the misogynist artifice of stardom and being your own person (and artist). It's a blistering jab to the chin of an industry (not just music, but entertainment in general) that obsessively services the male gaze. And it's a deeply felt character drama, too, about soul mates who separately know plenty about living up to external expectations. It's marvelous.
You wouldn't get all of that from the materials, however. Due respect to whoever was in charge, but the poster makes the film look like “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” or better yet, like Nicholas Sparks for an African American audience or something. It's a crushing disservice, in my opinion, to the very deep thematic ideas the film gracefully navigates. I did like the trailer, but hey, I'm not in marketing.
So the movie came and went at the box office last month (I honestly thought it was a December release), leaving very little funds for Relativity Media to work with for campaign purposes. Naturally, then, screeners have not been sent to any voting body, including the Academy. So I can only hope voters will feel an incentive to go out and catch it, because to bring it back to my point, Mbatha-Raw gives the single best leading actress performance of the year in the film, and Driver should be giving Patricia Arquette a run for her money in supporting. They're both that excellent.
Mbatha-Raw is having a huge coming out this year with this film and “Belle,” which is getting a push over at Fox Searchlight. As Noni Jean in “Beyond the Lights,” she captures the enigma of a pop star, the fragility of an artist trapped in a golden cage, the vulnerability of a daughter who wants to succeed for her mother and the nobility that comes with self-discovery and the passion to speak with your own artistic voice.
Driver, meanwhile, may well deliver her finest performance to date as Noni's mother Macy. She's handed so much to work with as a woman who had a child when she was 17 and then scratched and clawed to make a life for the two of them. She instills a spirit in her daughter that's as formative and invigorating as it is potentially destructive, sort of like “Whiplash” (though of course not on that level of severity). Macy is street smart and determined, not to use her kid as a meal ticket, but certainly to lean on her talents to get them to a better place, all the while betraying an obvious, deep, meaningful sense of love and admiration for her little girl's gifts. (Nate Parker is excellent, too, by the way, as is Danny Glover.)
This stuff is palpable when you watch the film. And it would absolutely have an impact on Academy members. I saw the film with a member of the sound branch, guy's guy, “meat and potatoes,” as they say. He loved it.
And here's the thing: This. Stuff. Is. So. Hard. To. Do. From a script level through performance and execution of the film (Prince-Bythewood's DP Tami Reiker captures the drama gorgeously), it's complex stuff all around and yet it's made to look so simple. I was kind of gobsmacked.
There is a campaign for Best Original Song afoot for Diane Warren's “Grateful,” and her being a six-time nominee, plenty of us are hoping she can finally land a trophy one of these days. But in particular with this film, Mbatha-Raw and Driver just crush it. So while voters are scrounging around for any and everything to fill out these categories, I humbly suggest a trip to the theater to see two of the best performances of the year, male or female. You won't regret it.
“Beyond the Lights” is now playing. More on the film Friday when I publish my top 10 films of the year (that's right).