Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings depth to ‘Beyond The Lights’

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Tenner

Honored this past October with the “Emerging Icon” award from Elle Magazine at the celebration for their 21st annual “Women in Hollywood” issue, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an actress on the rise.

Earlier this year, she starred in the breakout role of Dido Elizabeth Belle in the title role along-side Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer and Miranda Richardson. Her next starring role is in the contemporary love story Beyond The Lights, which opens in theaters on Friday.

In the cautionary tale, Mbatha-Raw stars as British pop star Noni Jean who is on the verge of superstardom, but breaks down and falls apart under the glaring lights and pressures of her new-found success.

Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) and set in Los Angeles, Beyond The Lights also stars Nate Parker (Nonstop) as love interest Kaz Nicols, a young police officer who enters Noni’s rarefied world and literally saves her life, and Minnie Driver as her mother and manager Macy Jean who wants to control her life and her rise to pop stardom.

In a recent interview with the Banner, Mbatha-Raw talked about what drew her to the role of Noni.

“You know, I really thought Gina Prince-Bythewood had done an amazing job in illustrating the behind-the-scene elements of the industry; taking the gloss off a glamorous industry,” she said. “We see this woman struggling to find herself and it’s a beautiful love story. I loved the mother-daughter relationship; love that she was a complex character; a child who becomes the breadwinner in the family.”

Mbatha-Raw brings a depth and soulfulness to the role of Noni that may have seemed unlikely in less capable hands. Born in Oxford in the United Kingdom and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Mbatha-Raw always loved acting as a child. Her first professional role was as Celia in a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, followed by roles at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England. There, she performed in Antony and Cleopatra and played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet opposite Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man).

In preparation for the character of Noni, Gugu trained for six months with Laurieann Gibson, Lady Gaga’s former choreographer, and also worked with vocal coach Debra Byrd. Of working with the choreographer, the actress said, “Laurienann Gibson put me through my paces.”

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Tenner

Gugu drew inspiration for her character from real-life artists such as Rihanna, Prince, Beyoncé and Katy Perry. The actress was steered by Gina Prince-Bythewood to look at actresses Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.

“Gina directed me toward their bios and the sexualized sex symbol persona of Marilyn Monroe and turning on this person that becomes all that people want to see,” said Mbatha-Raw.

Mbatha-Raw became known to American audiences in 2010 when she starred in the J. J. Abrams TV series Undercovers opposite Boris Kodjoe. A year later, she had a supporting role in the romantic comedy film Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks, and in 2012 appeared opposite Kiefer Sutherland in the Fox television series, Touch.

In the coming months we’ll see more of Mbatha-Raw. She just wrapped the film The Whole Truth with Renée Zellweger and Keanu Reeves which was directed by Courtney Hunt (Frozen River). In 2015, the actress will appear in Jupiter Ascending with Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and Eddie Redmayne. She’s also set to star opposite Will Smith in an untitled film about Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who first discovered extensive brain damage in NFL players.

Mbatha-Raw describes Noni as going through an evolution.

“She’s quite a damaged soul, and going through an emotional journey was challenging,” she commented.

In the end, the role helped Mbatha-Raw better understand herself.

“I feel like I learned things about myself and life and every project I do,” she said. “The message of the film is to be who you are and stay true to your instincts. I learned that’s something that I aspire to, as well as finding your voice.”

Beyond The Lights opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, Nov. 14.

Dear White People’ conveys complexity of contemporary race relations

“Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count,” is just one of the many funny and sly statements said by campus radio host Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) as she addresses the issue of race on campus and in her own life in the clever film, Dear White People.

Reminiscent of Spike Lee’s School Daze about black college life, Dear White People is a provocative satire on the black experience in a “post-racial” society during the age of Obama. Written, directed and produced by Justin Simien, the film follows a group of African American students (starring a cast of relatively unknown actors) as they navigate campus life at the fictional and predominately white Winchester University, while grappling with race, stereotypes and identity.

These issues are quickly pushed to the forefront when a riot breaks out on campus over an annual Halloween party’s creation of the theme “unleash your inner Negro.”

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Simien earned a spot on Variety’s annual “10 Directors to Watch” for his feature film debut. Prior to directing the film, Simien worked as a publicist and marketing specialist for Paramount Pictures, Focus Features and Sony Television.

Promoting the film on a nationwide college tour recently, Justin Simien was in town and spoke to the Banner about the making of Dear White People and the black experience.

What was the inspiration for Dear White People?

Justin Simien: Just my life. In particular my senior year in college having gone from the culture shock of leaving Houston, Texas for Orange County where I went to college. I was having these conversations with my other black friends about toggling, and how different we answer the phone depending on who’s calling. And, are we hanging out with this group of friends because we’re black? Are we hanging out with that group of friends…? Why are we keeping them separate? We were just having these really funny conversations and I was wondering, ‘Why aren’t these out there in the culture?’ Why aren’t more people talking about this? This is all of my friends’ black experience but particularly in 2005 and 2006, the latest black TV shows and black movies didn’t really reflect us and what our generation was going through. That’s really where the beginning of it came from and also I just really loved that there was a black art house in the late ‘80s that had reached the mainstream and it had completely evaporated by the time I was in college. I wanted to do something in that vein and that’s really where it came from.

The film is definitely reminiscent of School Daze, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Hollywood Shuffle because they were able to comment on society with humor and they were really clever.

JS: It’s nonexistent in film that you have a black comedy that strives to be satire that strives to be social commentary. We’ll do parodies every once in a while. You’ll have this sort of rom-com thing but something that really strives for the art house sensibility and the art houses — that’s a weird word nowadays — but strives for that sensibility. This is a movie that intended to say something, to leave you with something to talk about in the lobby. It’s very rare to find that about black people, about black characters.

It’s easy to find that with the recent movie, for example, This Is Where I Leave You which has a great cast and is a great movie. Why aren’t there more films like that, that represent a more rounded black experience?

JS: I’ve said this before, that those kinds of movies are meant to speak to the human condition. It’s unfortunate that in the marketplace movies that speak to the human condition so rarely have black characters in them or black actors or anybody black in the world. That has a subtle way of suggesting that our experiences aren’t as important and that when it comes to matters of the human condition our experiences and stories are irrelevant to that conversation. Those are the kind of more covert ways that I think culture sort of suggests things to black people about their identities that I think are harmful.

What does it mean to you when you hear about the black experience and identity?

JS: For me it’s been constantly sort of bobbing and weaving other peoples’ presumptions of me because I was never the right kind of black person. My family was Creole and so my understanding just the skin tones of blackness was already very different from what was kind of out there in the culture. My concept of blackness was just not ever the same as mainstream blackness. My mom was really into education and we listened to pop music and then I listened to alternative music. I never was able to properly emulate. When I grew up, the sort of gangsta culture was in vogue. You had kids from really good neighborhoods walking around with a limp. I never did it right. I found I was always sort of “blacking it up and blacking it down” amongst black people and white people. That’s just the way I came up and out in the world. So I think that’s definitely had an influence.

Your film seems like it might have led the way for the new TV show Blackish, which talks about the same issues of what it means to be black, the black experience. Do you think the timing of where we are right now politically is right for this conversation?

JS: I think it’s in the Zeitgeist now. I started in 2005. I don’t know when the creators of Blackish started and I don’t necessarily think one has to do with the other. It’s funny how people start to think about things and it takes so long to develop these projects and it’s impossible to say. It happens in Hollywood all the time. I feel fortunate about it. I think TV has always been a little ahead of the curve too, particularly on this issue, starting with the Dave Chappelle show, the Boondocks, and Key & Peele. Black satire has found a place in television. But film is sorely behind. It’s great that we had a year of black films but Meryl Streep can get an Oscar for playing anything. She doesn’t have to play a tragic role where she dies at the end or is striving at the end. I can’t wait for the time when black actors and black directors and black writers are getting awarded for important movies that have nothing to do with the tragedy of the black experience. That’s when I think things will change a bit.

What do you hope people take away from watching this film?

JS: I love after-movie conversations in the lobbies. I know race will be on people’s lips. The thing that I want people to take away is, you know, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What are the ways in which I have short-changed who I really am to get ahead in life or to meet the demands of other people?’ or ‘What are the ways that culture has sort of brainwashed me?’ That’s what I want people to talk about. ‘Isn’t it interesting I saw myself (whether you’re black, white or whatever), in a movie that featured people of color, and I felt something about the human condition in a movie that featured people of color.’ And, ‘Maybe movies with black and brown people in them and women as the leads, maybe they do have a spot at the table.’ Those are the kinds of things that I ultimately want them to take away.

Have you started thinking about your next project?

JS: I am in Dear White People land a bit. The book is really important to me. I want people to pick it up and tell me what they think. I think the characters belong on the small screen ultimately. I’d love to continue their adventures in a different medium. And beyond that, I’ve been writing for some time now so I have a few screenplays, and I’m writing a new one, and I’m attached to some other things. I want to keep telling people stories that leave people feeling a certain kind of way.

Dear White People opens nationwide in theaters Friday, October 24.

Courtesy of The Bay State Banner

Family and creativity fuel Marlon Wayans’ success

Following the advice of his brother, Keenen, to not sit around and wait for Hollywood, Marlon Wayans has firmly established his own identity as an actor, writer, producer, director and stand-up comedian. He’s taken the advice to heart.

“I’m always creating my own point of view,” said the actor recently by telephone.

Known for his role as ‘Marcus Copeland’ in the 2004 hit comedy White Chicks, which co-starred his brother Shawn, Marlon has a history of collaborating on projects. He and Shawn starred as siblings in the television series The Wayans Bros., which ran from 1995-1999 on the former WB network. In 2000 and 2001, Marlon not only starred in and wrote but also produced the first two films of the Scary Movie franchise with Shawn as his co-star and Keenen as director. Their on-screen collaboration began in 1996 when they wrote and starred in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, a parody of black coming-of-age films like Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and Higher Learning.

Earlier this year, Wayans produced and starred in the parody sequel A Haunted House 2 and created and starred in the comedy competition Funniest Wins, which had an eight-episode run this past summer on TBS. The show came about as he was looking at the landscape and thought “How do I create the perfect star?” said Wayans.

“Some shows showcase just stand-up,” he said. “I wanted to work on the skill set that would diversify comedians. I was looking at the YouTube and Vine generation and I thought it would be interesting to put the old school and new school generations together.”

During the show’s run, Marlon and his brothers Keenen, Damon and Shawn were on a national comedy tour together for the first time.

“It was the most awesome experience ever,” Marlon said. “I love touring with them and laughed a lot. We argued from time to time but always made up. To watch the audience have such a good time with us was awesome.”

Ever on the quest to create his own projects, Marlon recently launched his first online venture, with Randy Adams co-founder of the comedy website, The site serves up comedy programming with an urban sensibility with established and emerging comedians, writers and actors.

The father of two said his son and daughter seem to be following in the family business.

“My son does impressions of people that are spot-on and my daughter is a brilliant writer,” Marlon said. “She studies Nickelodeon, watches old episodes and is a student of comedy.”

Next up for the multi-talented performer is more touring, building his social media, Instagram and online presence.

“I’m on them every day,” said the avid social media fan. “I never want to be broke again. I have a lot of projects and want to meet them all.”

Marlon Wayans’ stand-up tour includes performances at The Comedy Connection in East Providence, Rhode Island on Thursday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $35;; and at The Wilbur on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets: $35;

Courtesy of The Bay State Banner

Denzel Washington plays ‘Equalizer’ with signature quiet intensity

Denzel Washington reteams with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua in the action thriller, The Equalizer. Based on the 1985 television show starring British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a middle aged retired intelligence officer with a mysterious past who helps people in trouble, Washington lights up the screen as the modern-day McCall in the film version.

Washington stars as McCall, a store manager working at Home Mart, (a Home Depot-like store), who puts his past as a retired black ops soldier behind him. McCall is now living a simple and quiet life in Boston, albeit with several obsessive-compulsive tendencies. McCall spends his non-working hours reading the great American classics like Moby Dick in the wee hours of the morning at a local coffee shop.


Film Still C/O Sony Pictures

All of that changes when Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who McCall has befriended on his nightly visits to the diner, is hospitalized after being brutally beaten by her pimp, Slavi (David Meunier). Strangely protective of her, Robert can’t sit idly by, and doesn’t. He feels a call to action and ends up killing Slavi, unaware Slavi is a member of the Russian mob.

The film sets up the story slowly and steadily, building up to where you feel the tension bubbling below the surface, ready to explode. And explode it does. McCall’s actions set up a chain of events in which there’s no return. He comes out of his self-imposed retirement recharged and finds his desire to exact punishment against anyone who terrorizes the helpless reawakened.

Denzel commands every scene of The Equalizer with his direct and penetrating gaze, cool smile, steady voice and, of course, his signature stride. He’s having fun in the role, and you want McCall to succeed as avenger in righting the wrongs and teaching the bad guys a lesson.

In a cameo role is Melissa Leo as Susan Plummer, McCall’s former boss. Her presence is immediately felt and she easily goes toe-to-toe with Washington in her all-too-brief scene. Plummer’s husband is played by Bill Pullman.

Beautifully shot in Charlestown and Chelsea, the cinematography is colorful, gritty and striking, painting the Boston skyline and the Zakim Bridge in vivid colors and textures.

Washington, who is also one of the producers on The Equalizer, is a movie star in every sense of the word. You can’t take your eyes off of him, and you can’t help but root for McCall. This is Denzel’s movie, and he pulls you in from the very beginning and leaves you wanting more.

Courtesy of The Bay State Banner

Dancer Misty Copeland inspires new generation of ballerinas

“This is for the little brown girls,” writes Misty Copeland in the prologue of her New York Times bestselling memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, which chronicles Copeland’s turbulent life growing up as the fourth of sixth children to a single mom in a chaotic household in Southern California.

Despite the struggles and upheavals in her and her siblings’ lives, Misty was able to find her voice and herself through her discovery of ballet. She came late to the profession — she was 13 when she took her first ballet class at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club in California. Within three months she was able to stand en pointe (dancing on the tips of her toes).

Copeland, in fact, was more than a natural at ballet, she was considered a prodigy and within a year she began performing professionally. At age 15, Misty won the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards in California and caught the attention of several major ballet companies — including the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet.

After graduating from high school at 17, Misty accepted an offer from the American Ballet Theatre (considered America’s top ballet company), to be a dancer in their Studio Company. Just two years later, she was promoted to ABT’s Corps de Ballet. And in 2007 at the age of 24, she became only the second African American soloist in the American Ballet Theatre’s history, and the first in more than two decades.

Inspired as a teen by famed ballerinas Gelsey Kirkland, Paloma Herrera, and Raven Wilkinson, whom she refers to in her memoir as “a guiding light in her life”, Copeland is very grateful for the many individuals who have inspired and helped her along the way. “Ballet has given me opportunities that I wouldn’t ever have had,” says Copeland.

A mentor to young female dancers, she’s also written her first children’s book called Firebird in collaboration with Christopher Myers, an award-winning author and illustrator. The book, which is beautifully illustrated, tells the story of a young girl whose confidence is fragile and who questions her own ability to reach the heights that Misty has reached. Misty encourages this young girl’s faith in herself and shows her that through hard work and dedication, she too can dance the part of the Firebird, and that she too will soar and fly.

“The idea for Firebird happened gradually. It came about before the memoir but they [Penguin] moved a bit slower,” says Copeland.

Christopher Myers told Penguin that he wanted to co-author the book with Misty, “but they didn’t know who I was” she recalls. “We hung out for the summer and the concept came from hanging out with me and Raven Wilkinson. He liked the relationship I had with Raven.”

The role of Firebird is special to Misty because she was the first black woman in history to play the title role at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2012. In her memoir, Copeland describes the Firebird “as a work that melds the most virtuosic parts of ballet with bravura solos that tell a story of spells, mystical creatures, and love triumphing over evil.”

In addition to her love of ballet, Misty is an ardent supporter, alum and an ambassador for the Boys and Girls Club. Misty is proud of the diversity initiative that is in the works with the Boys and Girls Clubs and with the American Ballet Theatre called Project Plié. The goal of Project Plié is to increase the ethnic and racial makeup in ballet. She says that it’s “still in the very beginning stages” but the idea “is to bring affordable top notch training to the clubs across the country.”

The world of ballet has afforded Misty many opportunities. She’s the latest female athlete to represent Under Armour in their campaign, I Will What I Want, and the sports apparel company is banking on Misty to inspire and empower a whole new generation of women athletes.

When asked what her advice would be to those brown girls who are struggling to find their voice, Misty says, “it’s important to know who you are. You’re going to be viewed by society by the way you look. Stand proud in those things but don’t let them become you. Don’t let others’ ideals box you in.”

Courtesy of The Bay State Banner

Firebird, published by Putnam Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group) is on sale beginning September 4, 2014.