Last night I was re-watching a movie I had seen some time ago called Beyond the Lights (from 2014). It was an accidental selection but once I started watching I couldn’t stop. I had forgotten how good it was and especially how excellent the lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw is!
In Beyond the Lights Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the singer Noni Jean who has shot to fame and has just won a Billboard music award. However, not all that glitters is gold and Noni, once she is alone in her hotel room, tries to commit suicide by getting ready to jump off a balcony. She is saved by a police officer and slowly but surely has to deal with what it was that made her want to jump.
Yes, it’s a love story as she and the police officer Kaz (Nate Parker) fall in love, but far more than that, it is a story of a young woman who has let herself be swept up to be a certain way and starts figuring out who she really is; it’s about her emancipating herself from her manager-mother (Minnie Driver, also amazing in this!) and it is about finding her own voice, figuratively and literally.
At some point Noni escapes it all with Kaz and starts to really find herself. At her hideout in Mexico she is not recognized and stands up incognito at a karaoke bar to sing Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird’ acapella. That performance is mesmerizing and moved me to tears, especially considering all the character has been through up to that point in the story. Here, take a look yourself…
I have also seen Gugu in the excellent 2013 movie Belle, in which she plays Dido Belle, the mixed-race adopted daughter of a judge who lived at Kenwood House in London in the 18th century. It’s the story of Dido trying to find her place in society as a young woman of mixed-race and is set against the backdrop of her father judging a case about slaves who were thrown overboard from a slave ship, with the owners of the ship claiming compensation from insurers. I even fan-girled over the movie when I was in London a year ago.
The film is based on a painting that used to hang in Kenwood House (but is now in Scotland) where, maybe for the first time, a person of colour is portrayed as equal to the white person (and not as a servant or slave). Here the original painting (on the left) and the one featured in the movie…
Gugu is so excellent in this movie and I have seen it quite a few times already. Period drama addressing racism and slavery in England is unusual and I can only highly recommend this one!
I remember noticing Gugu in a small role in the Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts movie Larry Crowne (the movie itself was so-so)…
I even remember first seeing her back in 2008, in a very small part in the very amusing miniseries Lost in Austen, where she plays the (20th century) friend of the main character Amanda…
And Gugu was Plumette in the recent Beauty and the Beast movie..
She is also in a few movies on my I-still-wanna-watch-that list, for instance:
- Free State of Jones about a man’s armed revolt against the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Once I learned she was in it, it went on my list. The only reason I haven’t watched it yet is because of Matthew McConaughey (he’s a good actor but I’m not a fan).
- She plays the lead role in Irreplaceable You, out on Netflix. As it’s a film about a woman with terminal cancer, I haven’t been able to watch it yet (ever since I saw the process of dying with my father, I don’t do so well anymore with dramas about someone dying).
- She’s also in A Wrinkle in Time, a scifi fantasy adventure starring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. I missed it in the cinema (apparently it didn’t do so well) but it will be out on DVD soon.
- I have only just now found out that she also plays in Miss Sloane with Jessica Chastain and Mark Strong. It’s a movie about the gun lobby in the USA and one I’ve already been curious about. Now I have extra incentive to actually watch it soon.
I have seen little bits and pieces of her in the first two films on this little list and that was already looking good. I have a feeling Gugu Mbatha-Raw is slowly worming her way into becoming one of my fave actresses!