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'Beyond The Lights' Director Gina Prince-Bythewood Is Not Afraid Of Saying 'No'

Ashley Velez |
November 7, 2014 | 2:51 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer and director of "Beyond The Lights," began writing the film in 2007. (Getty Images)
Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer and director of "Beyond The Lights," began writing the film in 2007. (Getty Images)
Gina Prince-Bythewood had a vision and a mission when she began writing “Beyond the Lights” in 2007. “Choose life” would be the film’s ultimate message and it would feature a black couple. Noni, a breakout music sensation attempts suicide at the start of the film until Kaz, a police officer, grabs her hand and eventually, her heart. No, this would not be an exclusively “black love story”, but it would send a message that could relate to all audiences, much like her characters Monica and Quincy in “Love & Basketball.”

“The same way it is when I watch ‘The Notebook’, I wanted that story to be universal,” says Prince-Bythewood at an advance screening of "Beyond the Lights" at the University of Southern California. 

One thing became very clear as she spoke to the school’s African American Cinema Society; the critically acclaimed director did not make a name for herself in this industry by saying “yes.” She would make her films her way and in this case, that meant that she would have to endure years of “hellish” experiences with major film studios.

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“I think it’s inside me because of athletics,” she says. “Always being the only girl on the team, always fighting and overcoming until you get a win.”

Major studios did not want “Love & Basketball” in the late 1990s and they did not want “Beyond the Lights,” either, which was originally called “Blackbird.” Still, she continued her fight until the film would finally be picked up by a major studio.

It almost seemed that Prince-Bythewood’s cinematic dreams were coming true. However, she came to find that the studios wanted to change so many things about the film that she would eventually have to walk away in order to maintain the film’s essence. 

Some of these changes included casting Channing Tatum as Noni’s love interest in “Beyond the Lights.” Another studio wanted to cast a star like Beyonce or Rihanna as Noni.

“I was afraid that if we casted Beyonce the audience would see it as Beyonce’s story,” she says.

After working with Alicia Keys on “The Secret Life of Bees,” Prince-Bythewood imagined that Keys would play the role of Noni. Another search began after Keys became pregnant, and as fate would have it, Gugu Mbatha-Raw stole the director’s heart shortly after. Sony Studios did not need a star in Mbatha-Raw but Prince-Bythewood was positive that she had found her Noni. Sony backed out of the project, and Prince-Bythewood took Mbatha-Raw with her on the search for the next studio. Eventually, the film would receive major financial backing from BET, and would also be picked up by Relativity Media. 

“I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and the reason was for me to end up at Relativity where I had complete creative control,” says Prince-Bythewood.

Prince-Bythewood fell in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw's craft and knew that she would be the perfect Noni, even when the studios did not agree. (Getty Images)
Prince-Bythewood fell in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw's craft and knew that she would be the perfect Noni, even when the studios did not agree. (Getty Images)
One thing that could explain her dedication to her characters is that she has always poured major parts of herself into them. Writing has become extremely therapeutic for the critically acclaimed director.

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“All the things I missed about sports, I was able to get it out of my system and live vicariously through Monica,” she recalls as she discusses “Love & Basketball.”

The director continues to place her defining moments on paper, which ultimately end up shaping the lives of her characters as well. Noni, the biracial protagonist in “Beyond the Lights,” is raised by her white mother, who was rejected by the rest of her family. Prince-Bythewood is also biracial but was adopted after her mother gave her up for adoption because she was half black.

Prince-Bythewood's feelings were still very raw after tracking down her own birth mother and she knew that she had to include this experience in the identity of Noni.

“To sit face-to-face with someone who is supposed to love you more than anyone in the world and that person resents you,” she says, solemnly. “Her parents actually told her ‘you cannot have this black child.’”

 “It was something that I had to get over because it was messing with my self esteem and self worth so I poured that into Noni,” says Prince-Bythewood.

The “choose life” message of the film also stemmed from Prince-Bythewood’s personal experiences. Someone very close to the director tried to commit suicide but thankfully held on to the belief that things would get better and eventually sought help. Prince-Bythewood did not take this event lightly and wanted to share this message with the world.

“I love making movies, I love telling stories but I also want them to say something,” she says.

After seven years, 55 drafts, 29 days of shooting, and countless rejections, “Beyond the Lights” will hit theaters on November 14. Every “no” led Prince-Bythewood to this moment and suddenly, it all seems worth it. 

Reach Staff Reporter Ashley Velez here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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