DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When it comes to black films, many people point to the year 2000 as a transformative moment. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brought us "Love And Basketball."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AND BASKETBALL")
SANAA LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) I'll play you.
OMAR EPPS: (As Quincy McCall) What?
LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) One game, one-on-one.
EPPS: (As Quincy McCall) For what?
LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) Your heart.
LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) Check.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
That film did not fall into old stereotypes - drugs, violence, the plight of living in the ghetto. It was simply a love story between two people who happened to be people of color.
GREENE: Fourteen years later, Bythewood is out with another love story. "Beyond The Lights" became a film festival darling earlier this year, seen as a black film likely to reach crossover audiences. Bythewood, though, doesn't like that term.
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Black film, that term allows studios to just marginalize a movie and say, we've made our black film. We've made our film with people of color in it, as opposed to, I just feel like people of color should be in every genre.
MONTAGNE: "Beyond The Lights" is a story about the pain of feeling unheard and invisible. It's something Bythewood knows about. Given up for adoption, she sought out her birth mother not long ago. It wasn't a joyful reunion.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: She was a young, white woman - a teenager. And her parents, knowing that I was black, wanted her to abort me. And she almost did. But to just - you know, to be face-to-face with somebody who gave birth to you, you think, you know, there would be that unconditional love, which there wasn't. And I just started projecting what my life would've been like if she hadn't given me up and had raised me and I'd grown up in a home, you know, where I was resented.
GREENE: And Bythewood infuses those feelings into her lead character in the film. Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, an R&B mega-star who commands the stage more with her sexuality than her voice. And then she meets a man, played by Nate Parker, who saves her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEYOND THE LIGHTS")
NATE PARKER: (As Kaz) So what was it like being on stage and all those people feeling you?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni) It's a crazy high, better than any drug.
GREENE: Underneath Nonie's stage persona is a young girl pressured to succeed, losing her true self. Bythewood says she sees too many young women in the music industry today going through this.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There is a blueprint that young, female singers seem to follow to make it, to make some noise when they first come out. And it's a hyper-sexualized persona. And the thing is that it works. And they do make noise. But the problem is if it's not authentic to you, then you're trapped in that persona. And you have to live that persona 24/7. To live an inauthentic life like that - I mean, it's exhausting. And it's damaging. And that's really what my issue is. So I'm not going to give her name, but there's a young singer out right now. And I just think about, like, when she was a little girl singing, you know, in a comb in the mirror, was she really thinking about growing up and singing the stuff that she's singing about now, about getting high and getting drunk and sleeping around? Like, that's what her song is about. Is that what you dreamed about when you were a little girl? Are you proud of that music you're putting out? I don't know how you could be.
GREENE: It sounds like you don't even want to go there. But when I watched the movie, I mean, the first thought to me was that Rihanna was the model for this movie, right down to clothing, hairstyle, everything.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There were many influences of this character. And honestly, the first two influences in the writing process were Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Read their biographies and Judy Garland, with her relationship with her mother, is fascinating and frightening. And Marilyn Monroe, with the persona that was created and how damaging it was - so those were the early influences. But then, of course, what is going on in the industry today and artists today absolutely influenced the film.
GREENE: You bringing up names like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe and their stories being embedded in the film, you touch on exactly what a lot of people feel you accomplished with "Love And Basketball," you know, just making a film that happened to have people of color in it but universal themes. And then, fast-forward 14 years, and after you got a lot of credit for accomplishing that, you had to fight to get this movie accepted. What does that tell us?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It is tough. It tells us that things have not changed in 14 years. With "Love And Basketball," every studio turned it down. And then, with this film, I felt like I had written a contemporary love story and a music film that was touching on contemporary themes and thought it would be an easy sell. I was shocked when everybody turned it down. There were two issues. One was the suicide in it and studios feeling like that made it feel small, and audiences couldn't come back from that. And then the other's that there's two people of color at the helm and studious feeling that that's harder to market. There are no stars of that age that they could bank on. It's disheartening to sit in meeting after meeting and people saying they love the script and they love my work, but they don't see this is as a movie that they want to do. You know, people ask me all the time if I feel discriminated against as a black, female director. And I actually don't because I get offered a ton of stuff. And if I wanted to work all the time, I could. But I like to direct what I've written. So I feel what's discriminated against are my choices, which is a focus on people of color and, specifically, women of color. Those are the films that are not getting made. And those are the films that take a lot more fight. But I'm up for the fight because if I'm not making them, they're not going to get made, and we become invisible again.
GREENE: I wonder if you can address a potential tension here. You're saying this is not black film. You don't like there to be a genre that's called that because you're dealing with universal themes.
GREENE: But you feel like you need to be sticking up for black actors and actresses to make sure that they are considered and given a fair shot. How do you do both of those things?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It's just about putting people of color in every genre and allowing - making it become normal. You know, when "The Cosby Show" came out and everyone was up in arms about "The Cosby Show" and that it was reflecting a world that didn't exist - but I knew black doctors. And I knew black lawyers. And I knew families that, you know, had a mother and a father and kids that were well-behaved. So right now there's perception in the world that black people don't love each other, that they don't get married. And it's because we don't see it. There are never any images of that in TV and film. And without those images, young, black people have nothing to aspire to. And the world continues to perpetuate this myth about the lack of black love. So it's just important, again, for me to make us visible in film and television. I just - I really think it can improve the world. And that's really my drive.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEYOND THE LIGHTS")
MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni, singing) Oooh...
GREENE: That's director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Her new film, "Beyond The Lights," is out today.
MBATHA-RAW: (As Noni, singing) As I dive here without my...
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