As the 2015 Academy Awards swiftly approach, the buzz surrounding the show continues to emerge as new presenters and performers are announced. On Wednesday, the rumor that Rita Ora would perform at the Oscars this year was confirmed, to sing her nominated song "Grateful" written by songwriter Diane Warren. The song is featured in the film Beyond the Lights, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and starring the beautiful and commanding Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
However, I have to admit: Though it's exciting that "Grateful" earned a Best Original Song" nomination and that Ora will be performing the song, it's slightly overshadowed by the disappointing reality that Beyond the Lights as a film was overwhelmingly unrecognized this awards season. And it's a shame, because Hollywood needs to be inclusive now more than ever, and it seems awards season all but ignored a great story from an African-American female director.
So, what are you missing if you haven't seen Beyond the Lights?
In short, a whole lot. Most of all, Gugu Mbatha-Raw's flawless performance as hip-hop star Noni who is suffocated by the expectations of fame and her overbearing mother/manager portrayed by Minnie Driver. She's opposite co-star Nate Parker, who plays a cop named Kaz that saves Noni from attempting suicide from her hotel balcony window. The two become intertwined, whether they like it or not, as the story of the "Officer Hero" Kaz becomes part of the myth of Noni and her calculated image. Bilge Ebiri from Vulture praised the film for its balance:
For all its honesty, it’s never slow, and for all its criticism of the music industry, it’s never finger-wagging. Prince-Bythewood recreates the hyperstylized imagery of music videos and awards shows, indulging in their pop absurdity while allowing an undercurrent of melancholy to course through. And she somehow does it all without ever letting the story get out of control, too ridiculous or fantastical.
Apart from the realistic romantic storyline, director Prince-Bythewood demonstrates an adept and important exploration of expectations and realities in the hip-hop community. It's even more perplexing that she wasn't nominated for a Best Director award, since she's well-known for directing the 2000 film Love and Basketball — which itself was met with critical acclaim and won many awards including NAACP recognitions. Fifteen years later, it seems like Hollywood still has the same issues with overlooking important stories told by black directors, and especially ones by black women.
But, there's a small comfort provided in knowing that just because a film doesn't nab an Oscar nomination, that doesn't speak to its quality. Though, yes, winning an Academy Award is still a symbolic victory, there's also the simultaneous truth that there are a number of great films that are strong which the Academy failed to acknowledge. Among them: Selma, of course, is the most glaring omission, but also Beyond the Lights, Get On Up, Dear White People, and Belle (a period drama which also stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw). In fact, considering these two vastly different and complex performances from Mbatha-Raw, it's a wonder that she wasn't herself nominated.
Beyond the Lights is worth a watch not only for its performances, but for its striking visuals and, simply, it's beautiful love stories. It's exciting that Rita Ora will perform "Grateful" at the upcoming Oscars ceremony, but if the Oscars won't recognize the greatness of Beyond the Lights, viewers themselves definitely should.