By now, you should be familiar with upcoming film, Beyond The Lights starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. Hollywood has been buzzing about the unexpected love story between Noni, the rising pop star, and Kaz, the police officer who saves her from suicide. But there are some facts about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film that may surprise you.
1. The film was almost never made
It had been over six years since Prince-Bythewood directed a feature film and when she started pitching Beyond The Lights to studios. The Love & Basketball and Secret Life of Bees writer-director faced some unexpected resistance. “I thought it was going to be an easy sell,” she told Flavorwire. “[But] I got turned down by everybody but one studio.” When she finally did find a studio, they didn’t even guarantee they were going to go through with production. On top of it all, Prince-Bythewood was told she needed to get a white male actor to play opposite the character of Noni, according to Clutch Magazine. But the director insisted upon casting Nate Parker for the role of Kaz.
2. Gugu Mbatha-Raw almost didn’t make the cut
“I started auditioning mostly singers and a couple actors and nothing was clicking,” said Prince-Bythewood. “Gugu came in and I knew she was the one.” Her studio, however, needed a little more convincing. “[They] said ‘No, she’s not a star, we’re not going to make it with her.’ So we parted ways.” Prince-Bythewood eventually got financing from BET and distribution from Relativity, which finally allowed her to “make the film that was in my head for so long,” and Mbatha-Raw joined Danny Glover and Minnie Driver in the cast.
3. Laurieann Gibson choreographed the film
The film centers around Noni as a the biggest pop star out at the time (think Beyonce, Rihanna big). So, of course, there’s going to be some sexy dance moves. Prince-Bythewood enlisted the help of legendary choreographer Lauriann Gibson to add movement to the music of the film. “You want to tell the story through the movement,” Gibson said. “The choreography was very sexualized. Gina wanted the most ratchetous movement.” Prince-Bythewood agrees that “ratchet” became a very important word for them as they worked to make Mbatha-Raw look like a bonafide pop star. But it was well worth it. “It was really fun teaching Gugu how to pop her ass and get buck wild in the club,” Gibson says with a hint of British accent. “It was well worth over six months of training and her performance was the hottest thing.”
4. Nate Parker also had to train for his role
Sorry, you won’t see the leading man hit the stage with some booty-shaking dance moves like Gugu. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have to do his share training. In an interview with The Source, Parker revealed how he worked with real police officers to look authentic in his role as a cop. “I shadowed one cop that was a close friend of [Gina’s],” he said. “He taught me how to pat someone down, how to speak to suspects, questioning protocol… My goal was to be able to perform in a way where police officers can see the film and be like, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing.’”
5. Chaka Khan makes a cameo
Even though Beyond The Lights is about a fictional singer, the film has no shortage of cameo appearances from real singers and pop stars. Chaka Khan appears as herself near the beginning of the film when Noni is about to accept her first Billboard Music Award. The seasoned songstress with enviable locks of her own compliments the rising star, “Love the hair!” The film is star-studded even behind the scenes. Grammy Award-winning R&B producer-singer The Dream lent his talents to writing the songs for the movie, and Beyonce’s hair stylist Kim Kimble helped glam up Mbatha-Raw for the role.
6. Adele, Bette Midler and Beyoncé helped inspire Gugu’s character, Noni
When getting into character, Mbatha-Raw sought inspiration from a number of sources. “We were inspired by many different artists. Obviously artists like Rihanna or Beyoncé, but also more unexpected artists like Adele and Lauryn Hill,” the star told ESSENCE.com. “Gina directed me to biographies of iconic artists like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, to Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, and Bette Midler”
7. Beyond the Lights is not a “Black film”
Prince-Bythewood has a message to send to Hollywood: films with Black stars aren’t just for Black people to enjoy. “Hollywood calls them ‘urban films’ or ‘Black films, and it’s really my goal to abolish that and just have people of color in every genre,” the writer-director told Flavorwire. “The same way I can fall in love with The Notebook, people should see films with people of color and feel the same way. There are people of color but it’s not race specific—it’s a love story.”
Beyond the Lights opens in theaters this Friday, Nov. 14.