When the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced in January, the lack of diversity among the nominees became the center of a national conversation. As many were quick to point out, this year marked the first since 1998 that no actors of color were nominated. One of them who many feel was snubbed all season long was Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the British chameleon who displayed incredible range in two 2014 releases: the period drama “Belle” and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s critically acclaimed romance “Beyond the Lights,” in which Mbatha-Raw played a depressed, hyper-sexualized pop star. The latter film landed on many critics’ top 10 lists (New York Times’ critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott are amongst its biggest supporters), but failed to make a big impact at the box-office. Still, the film went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, for the ballad “Grateful” written by Diane Warren.
Prince-Bythewood, best known for the beloved 2000 romance “Love & Basketball,” caught up with Indiewire two days after attending to open up about the experience of attending a ceremony where she didn’t feel fully represented.
So how was the show?
It was my first time. It was actually a lot of fun, I have to say. It’s such a spectacle. Obviously, there were issues going on underneath, but for that night I put it aside. You have to live in the moment.
What issues are you referring to?
Oh, the lack of diversity. Lack of diversity with people of color and with women. I remember looking at my husband and saying, “Wow, it’s all one thing” [laughs]. But honestly it just makes us hungrier and more up for the fight.
About that fight: So many think pieces came out the morning of the Oscar nominations based on the lack of diversity. What did you make of the reaction from the industry and the media?
This is the third year there’s been a call to arms, because the year Spike was not nominated for “4 Little Girls” was a travesty… Denzel Washington from “Malcolm X.” There have been some pretty shocking omissions. It’s not so much the Oscars that are the issue; more so Hollywood is the issue. We need more films that are made that deserve to be in the conversation, so it does not all fall on one or two films.
It doesn’t just have to be a period piece or a biopic that is deserved of being in the conversation. And that’s definitely something that we have to figure out and change because if you look at art films that do get nominated, I’m trying to think of a contemporary film with black character, I can’t think of one, maybe I’m blanking, but I can’t think of one in the last couple years that’s been nominated. So it’s about Hollywood shifting their perception and more films getting made.
On Sunday, did you talk about the lack of diversity with anyone else apart from your husband?
Of course. It is tough. I feel bad and I think David Oyelowo said said something very profound when he said that black actors are not celebrated when they play strong, positive characters. I think that can be said of black females as well. When I saw “Selma” I stopped seeing David after 10 minutes. He gave a transformative performance and you want a performance like to be recognized. Gugu gave a transformative performance in “Beyond the Lights” and she also did “Belle” in the same year! She did two roles like that that are 180 degrees from each other.
Any other white actor would have been celebrated and they have after just one of those. That was very hard to wrap my head around. Why was she ignored? It doesn’t make sense except for how the movie was presented and the perception of the film. I keep going back to perception because we have a lot of work to do in that area.
The marketing for “Beyond the Lights,” especially the posters, sell is as a “Bodyguard” type of love story and not the critical darling it really is. When it first premiered in Toronto it received strong notices, but then faded until it was dumped into theaters. Critics really started to rally behind it once it was already out. What do you make of the film’s journey?
We’re at Toronto, had a great screening there, standing ovation and a lot of great press was coming out, especially on Gugu’s performance. It wasn’t just that she was good, it was that she was amazing and it was a star-making performance. I think one of the issues was that that was not capitalized on or that was not the focus [in the marketing]. The focus of the studio was to make it a commercial film. My argument is that you can have critical acclaim and commercial success.
But that’s not always the case with our films. We don’t have that often. I feel it was pushed in one direction and it was a missed opportunity. It wasn’t screened widely for critics.
I learned a lot on the film about how much I need to be involved next time on that other side. It’s tough when by the time critics really came aboard in a a big way, we were on so many top 10 lists and I think it should have been capitalized on that. The shift in the campaign should have happened that did not happen. It wasn’t just, “You should see this movie” but the trumpets were so loud once we were out of theaters and there were great critics. One of them said to me, “I wish I had done this a month earlier.” At the Oscar nominee luncheon he said to me if he had done this a month earlier it would be a different story. It’s bittersweet. I’m so blessed with the critical support and the champions that stepped up to the film. A.O. Scott and Anne Thompson, people that I really respect, to have them champion the film is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, it happened a little late, but like I said, you learn from everything.
Why did you choose to set your love story in the world of the music industry?
Well, one, I love films about music. The good ones are transcendent and I love how the music fuels the story and the story fuels the music. The film “The Rose” was a big influence on me, “Walk the Line” was big for me. So for me I wanted to write what I want to see. R&B is such a huge part of my creative process and everything has its own playlist, but this music that I love so much has gone in such a strange, angry, place in the last few years in terms of competition and hyper-sexuality especially with our female singers and male singers as well. I don’t see what’s going to change it and I wanted to call attention to what is happening and hopefully change the conversation.
When someone like Alicia Keyes first came out we were so in love with her voice and we were like, “Who is that?” That was just cool and she didn’t have to take it all off for us to pay attention because of her voice. I’m just not seeing that happening right now. These young singers coming out, they coming out the same way, there’s a blueprint they follow to a tee and it gets you that early notice but it just doesn’t feel authentic. So what happens when you have to live an unauthentic life. You’re trapped in that and that’s really what I wanted to explore. I’m lucky to have friends who are singers and singers at a high level and talk to them about what they’ve gone through. Some of them have gone through the hyper-sexuality and a lot are against it. It was great to put that truth into the screenplay and explore it and make people think a little differently about what they’re watching and supporting.
Rita Ora, who performed your nominated song at the Oscars, appears to be in total control of her sexuality and how it’s marketed. Did you play a role in choosing her to represent “Beyond the Lights” at the Oscars?
Absolutely. Once Diane Warren wrote the song and played it for me, I was so blown away I got chills. She sang it herself. I could choose who I wanted to sing the song and I was really into Rita’s song “I Will Never Let You Down” at that moment. I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t bigger here in the U.S. She had a very cool vibe about her, a bigger vibe and a bigger voice — and this was a good chance to have a singer that I liked and I think her voice matched well with the vocals. She was somebody who hadn’t succumbed to the madness and this was a way for her to break bigger and so we put her on the track.
Unfortunately she didn’t promote the song as much as she should have, so honestly it’s a shock that we got the nomination. It got zero promotion and zero campaigns. But I love it. It’s a great song that rose to the top. So that’s why I chose her. I have to say there is a little irony in that she performed the song at the Oscars that contains everything the movie’s about and later at the Vanity Fair party all anyone could talk about to Rita Ora was the dress that she wore that night.
The fact that she showed up appearing almost naked?
Yeah. So there was a bit of irony there. Not good irony.
“Beyond the Lights” is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand platforms.