In the African-American community, depression is the little black book of secrets rarely read unless someone dies by suicide. For the world, depression is the dark devil lurking beneath sunglasses on what appears to be a cloudless bright day. In Beyond the Lights, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood bravely opens the blinds to reveal the taboo topic of mental health.
“Somebody very close to me tried to kill themselves and I changed their mind halfway through and was able to get them to the hospital on time,” says Bythewood, best known for directing 2000’s beloved Black romance classic Love and Basketball, along with The Secret Life of Bees. “And after it happened, I just started reading more about suicide. And was fascinated to know how many times, they say about 50% of the time, there’s evidence the person tried to stop it but it was too late. I found that fascinating. That’s really with Noni’s character.”
Noni is Bythewood’s protagonist in Beyond the Lights. Played to the T with real-life, on-key singing chops by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Noni is the world’s “it” girl of pop music. On the cusp of releasing her debut album, racking up music awards, dropping jaws across the red carpet, Noni struts into her hotel room, steps onto a balcony, and teeters with the intention of leaping.
“Thankfully she gets pulled up. What I really wanted to put out in the world is that we can all get to that really dark place,” says Bythewood, who helped Mbatha-Raw prepare for the role by giving her books on suicidal sirens and superstars of the past like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.
“We just cannot see past the darkness,” she continues, “but if you just get past it, it’s amazing the life that you can have. And for Noni, at that moment, she never knew she could end up falling in love, breaking free, and finding herself. If she’d succeeded [at ending her life], that would have been the end of her story.”
And a really short film. But like every drama, there needs to be a love theme working to smooth out the intensity. Nate Parker plays Noni’s chiseled knight in sunshine armor, Kaz Nicol, who pulls her away from walking into the light. Running opposite to a depressive person’s erroneous notion that love from another will heal the pain, Parker’s character is thankfully not the Band-Aid to Noni’s wounds.
“It was important also that it didn’t look as if just meeting Kaz and falling in love solved everything,” says Bythewood, who’s been married for 16 years to writer and director Reggie Rock Bythewood. “I mean, she says at the end that she got help and that was what she needed all along. And what she wasn’t getting from the mother was somebody to go and get her help. I just didn’t want it to be that she gets saved by him.”
On a mission to use her art to speak and make a difference, Bythewood’s work has a certain purpose. “I knew I needed to do it first when Gina asked me to. Because I trust her sensibility and vision and she’s very sensitive at times and very specific to her visions,” says Parker, who’s working on a film based on the life of preacher turned Black revolutionary Nat Turner.
“She only makes a movie like every four years,” he says. “She takes her time. And she makes her movies for her reasons. When we worked together on The Secret Life of Bees, we talked about what we want to do with our work and our platforms and why it’s important to be so intentional about what we pursue and why.”
Shining in a realistic, well-written, dark theme of conflict dependent on mental illness, Beyond the Lights also touches on the plight of sexual harassment of women. It weaves in socially relevant reflections of the super-sexualized image of women in a sexist world who give in to low self-esteem driven needs to show booty and skin to win the affections of men.
“Women of color in the entertainment industry as sorts of the go-to sexualized persona? That’s become normal,” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw. “Is that normal? And is it really empowering? Or is that just our social conditioning? I’m not judging or preaching, but I think it’s just important to challenge some of these things we accept in society and to raise a conversation.
“If you’re going to hopefully have millions of people watch you on the big screen, what are you going to say with your work? It’s not just about being the lead and getting attention. That really doesn’t interest me. It’s really about, what’s the message? What are people going to leave with when they come out of the theater?”
For Bythewood, it was important to make this film accessible to all age groups. She began writing it in 2007, a year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released numbers in a report showing that suicide claims at least one African-American every 4.5 hours. Statistics showed that Black teenagers and young adults committed suicide at rates higher than any other African American demographic.
“It was very important to me. There’s versions of this movie there could be a very hard R and really go in terms of the music. I pushed it as far as it could. I wanted a PG-13 ’cause I wanted young girls to be able to sit there, and young boys,” she says, of a film that went through 55 drafts and a name change before seeing the light of day. “But it was important for me that young people could see this film and really hope to change the conversation in terms of just this normalization of hyper-sexuality that’s happening. But also in terms of the mental health aspect of it.”
It’s the healing that begins in necessary conversations. Talks that often can come from seeing an imitation of life among the moving images of a carefully promoted Hollywood movie. “I did an early screening of the film. And I had some teenage girls come. And God, after the movie, this 15-year-old girl said, ‘We’ve all been on that balcony,’ ” says Bythewood. “And to see the journey that this girl took, and just hearing that, it’s like, that’s why you make movies. It is cliché, but I don’t care. If this can save one person’s life, then I’ve done my job.”
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.