It's not that I wouldn't have admired the film otherwise. Lights is a superior romance that manages to honor the conventions of classic melodrama while still feeling contemporary and unforced. The leads, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, develop a natural chemistry that's hard to resist—like a real romantic couple, they seem to be making themselves look good for each other, not for an audience. Likewise, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the obstacles to their romance seem plausible rather than arbitrary (which is how they come off in so many inferior movie romances). I doubt if my fellow spectators related directly to these obstacles. Noni (Mbatha-Raw) is so consumed by her singing career that she barely has time for her private life, and Kaz (Parker) is pressured to maintain a clean-cut public image in order to mount a campaign for LA city council. And yet the audience cheered so sincerely when the lovers overcame their challenges that I couldn't help but think that the movie had struck a nerve.
Though Lights works smashingly as a genre piece, it's also a serious critique of American media culture, which Prince-Bythewood presents as spiritually degrading. Noni, a talented singer, wants to follow in the footsteps of her hero Nina Simone and record the poetic, introspective songs she's been writing since adolescence. Yet her mother and manager (Minnie Driver) believes there's more money to be made in mainstream hip-hop. Playing into the hands of heartless record executives, she fashions her daughter into a sex object and gets her a steady gig singing backup vocals for a crass white rapper named Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Soon after the movie begins do we see that this life has taken its toll on Noni. At the end of a particularly demoralizing evening, she attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony of her hotel room. Enter Kaz, on duty as a policeman, who saves Noni's life and inspires her to ask him for a date.
It turns out that Kaz's father (Danny Glover) is just as controlling as Noni's mother. For years he's been grooming his son for political office, forcing him to go to law school and enter the LAPD. When he finds out that Kaz and Noni have started seeing each other, he objects on the grounds that dating a sex symbol would hurt Kaz's political career. Prince-Bythewood presents Noni and Kaz's dilemmas as two sides of the same coin—both have been made to conform to unrealistic images of success. One of the movie's most upsetting observations is that the image created for Noni is primarily sexual, barely allowing her to express her intelligence or even the full range of her singing voice. Kaz has it a little better, yet he too is made to suppress his real feelings and play a familiar type. Once the two lovers get to know each other, they realize they're both sick of being treated like consumer goods. Falling in love with each other inspires them both to reclaim their self-respect.
The characters' spiritual growth serves to deepen Prince-Bythewood's condemnation of the cynical world they inhabit. This condemnation is especially fierce during one of the movie's emotional climaxes. About halfway into Lights, Noni and Kid Culprit perform their latest single at the BET Awards, feigning at foreplay on a set made to resemble a sleazy motel bedroom. (Their publicists have created the impression that they're a couple offstage as well as on—another instance of Noni's intimate life being controlled by others.) Kaz, watching the performance from offstage, rushes to Noni's defense when Kid Culprit humiliates her and pretends to make it look like part of the act. The crowd goes wild—so did the one I was sitting with—as our heroes damage their careers but confirm their love for each other.
It's worth noting that most of the characters involved in the creation of this musical number—Noni's mother, Kid Culprit, and many of the record-company executives steering both singers' careers—are white, and that Noni, who seems to enjoy this number the least, identifies as black. One could easily imagine the justifiable outrage that Spike Lee might have brought to this scene, but Prince-Bythewood doesn't overplay her disgust at a TV performance being managed primarily by white people that is aimed primarily at black spectators . (Kaz's situation is more nuanced, but not categorically different—all his handlers are black, yet they frequently warn him about alienating white voters.) She stages the scene as pure melodrama, presenting this rejection of media culture in personal terms. The chivalrous Kaz triumphs over his boorish romantic rival, decisively winning Noni's heart.
When my fellow spectators burst into applause at this scene, were they cheering for the characters, the political subtext, or both? Or has Prince-Bythewood so succeeded in communicating her political concerns in spiritual terms that she's rendered the question irrelevant?