Beyond the Lights (2014)

This was released at the end of last year in the US and it should by any reasonable measure have had a UK release too (after all, there’s plenty of dross which does). It’s a story in which the central character Noni and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver respectively) are from Brixton, and it even has sequences set in this country. And yet it went straight to DVD, which is why the folks from the Bechdel Test Fest thankfully stepped in to give it a mere two (well-attended) cinematic screenings. The film is packed with powerful scenes that seem to be rendered out of raw emotion, not through some intensity of over-acting but just an acuity of writing on the part of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who has sadly not been as active a filmmaker as her short but distinguished filmography suggests). That said, I’m not sure if I’m explaining its effect well. Maybe “raw emotion” is too portentous a phrase to convey how the narrative operates. It seems to tap into a wellspring of female-centred melodramatic tradition — of the artist (here a pop/R&B singer) trying to reconcile her work and public image with her private desires (towards cop and nascent politician Kaz, played by Nate Parker) — without actually quite being that. The plot synopsis could suggest some kind of Notting Hill refit, except that it’s not a comedy either. It’s a serious-minded romantic drama that treats its characters with respect, even when they don’t respect themselves. It’s also packed with some of my favourite scenes from any of this year’s films, just for their sheer straightforward punchiness, and for Mbatha-Raw’s wonderful performance, which calls on her to shed layers of protective emotional armour not in order to secure a man, but in order to find something within herself that she can be happy with. It’s quite an achievement and it deserves your time.

Beyond the Lights film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 2 August 2015.

Belle (2013)

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.

Belle film posterCREDITS
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.