Unsung Auteurs: Gina Prince-Bythewood

November 11, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Love & Basketball and The Old Guard helmer Gina Prince-Bythewood.

If great art is often found to emerge from great pain, then writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a deep, dark, swollen well to draw from. Abandoned by her white birth mother, Bythewood discovered in her adulthood that the decision had been enforced by her biological mother’s family, who didn’t want to be involved in the raising of a child of mixed race. Bythewood was adopted by Bob Prince, a white computer programmer, and Maria Prince, a Salvadorian-German heritage nurse, when she was three weeks old, and was raised in the white middle-class neighbourhood of Pacific Grove, California alongside four siblings.

Prince-Bythewood attended UCLA’s film school, where she showed huge promise, receiving the Gene Reynolds Scholarship For Directing and The Ray Stark Memorial Scholarship For Outstanding Undergraduates.  After graduating from UCLA in 1991, Prince-Bythewood got her first industry jobs in television, working as a writer on TV series like A Different World (a spin-off from The Cosby Show), South Central (an ahead-of-its-time sitcom about life in the eponymous corner of LA) and Felicity (J.J Abrams’ much loved drama with Keri Russell). Also a keen high school and college athlete, Prince-Bythewood has always had to fight hard in the male-dominated worlds of sports and entertainment. “It’s so much about ambition and stamina and outworking everybody,” the director told The Washington Post in 2020. “That mentality drives who I am as a director. And this industry early on was constantly telling me that my stories weren’t worthy or valid. I kept having to fight for my space.”

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps in Love & Basketball.

After nearly ten years of writing for TV and directing short films, Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed her first feature film in 2000 with Love & Basketball. Developed at The Sundance Institute and produced by Spike Lee, the film was drawn from Prince-Bythewood’s own adolescent athletic experiences, and follows two affluent black teenagers (Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps) who fall in love over their passion for basketball, and eventually make it as career athletes. Authentic, original and compelling, Love & Basketball is a wholly stand-alone take on the sports and romance genres, inverting both while also looking intelligently at issues of race and gender. “The kernel of the idea was that I wanted to make a black When Harry Met Sally,” Prince-Bythewood told The Hollywood Reporter on the twentieth anniversary of the film. “I love that film, and there was a dearth or nonexistence of love stories made with black characters. It was something that I wanted to see reflected; I wanted to see myself reflected. I also wanted to tell a story that put into the world that women could have both: love and career.”

Initially rejected by most studios, Love & Basketball was well received, popular at the box office, and well-reviewed, but it didn’t really provide Prince-Bythewood with the recognition that she truly deserved, considering the boldness and originality of its themes. From there, Prince-Bythewood moved straight onto the cable television film Disappearing Acts, which was adapted from a novel by major African-American writer Terry McMillan (Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and reunited Prince-Bythewood with her Love & Basketball leading lady Sanaa Lathan and major star Wesley Snipes. Though – like most television projects of the era – Disappearing Acts has had little lasting impact, it did establish Prince-Bythewood’s striking facility for telling complex emotional stories fronted by African-American characters.

Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of The Secret Life Of Bees.

From Disappearing Acts, Prince-Bythewood directed episodes of TV shows like The Bernie Mac Show, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris before returning to the big in 2008 with a gorgeous adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life Of Bees. Set in the American south in 1964, the film stars Dakota Fanning as put upon, motherless teen Lily, who flees her abusive father with their housekeeper (Jennifer Hudson), and eventually finds herself in the home of the regal August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters (Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo). A fable-like drama that also deals with issues of race, abuse, gender and displacement, The Secret Life Of Bees is a true delight. The film was also profoundly for Prince-Bythewood. “I grew up with a complete identity crisis,” the director told Cinema Blend in 2008. “Then my discovery about the circumstances of my birth was pretty traumatizing. I was able to put all that into Lily’s journey. The racial aspect was important, but we didn’t want it to dominate. It was important that we not play the period, but that they exist within this period.”

Barely (if ever?) released in Australia, Prince-Bythewood’s next film as both writer and director was 2014’s Beyond The Lights, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a popular RnB singer falling apart at the seams, while her vicious stage mother (Minnie Driver) and bodyguard and romantic interest (Nate Parker) try to bring her back from the edge. Another highly personal project for Prince-Bythewood (the near suicide of a close friend was the initial inspiration, while the director’s mixed race upbringing also informs the story in a major way), the film was difficult to finance and continued the director’s career of constant struggle when it came to getting backing. “It’s been fourteen years since Love & Basketball,” Prince Bythewood said upon the film’s release. “I wanted to do another love story and I also wanted to do a music film. It’s one of my favourite genres. The Rose was one of my favourite movies.”

Gina Prince-Bythewood on set.

For the next six years, Prince-Bythewood was waylaid by two projects that never got off the ground (an adaptation of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Silver & Black, a female superhero film for Sony’s Spider-Man-related slate of titles), and then teamed with her husband – director, producer, actor and writer Reggie Rock Bythewood – to create the 2017 ten-part TV mini-series Shots Fired. Dealing with two racially-charged police shootings, the series (which again reunited Prince-Bythewood with her Love & Basketball leading lady Sanaa Lathan) received acclaim for its boldness in tackling incendiary social, racial and political issues head on. “I’m ready to fight,” Prince Bythewood told Assignment X on the show’s release. “And the way that we can fight is through our art. We have to fight as artists, and we’re excited about Shots Fired and the conversation that it sparks.”

In 2020, Prince-Bythewood was finally handed the reins on the kind of film that she’s been angling toward (and has richly deserved) for her entire career: a big budget, highly accessible feature film with the possibility of major audience reach. Bankrolled by Netflix, The Old Guard is a hard-punching adaptation of Greg Rucka’s action-packed graphic novel about a team of immortal mercenaries led by Charlize Theron. Though a big actioner, the film remains very much in line with Prince-Bythewood’s previously established concerns as a filmmaker. “I love the fact that it was organically diverse in that it’s a group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to save the world,” Prince-Bythewood told Deadline. “That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the world that I want. So to be able to reflect that in a real way and make it feel grounded and real, which was my hopeful intent, it’s just like everything I wanted.”

Gina Prince Bythewood with KiKi Layne on the set of The Old Guard.

The Old Guard also made Prince-Bythewood the first African-American woman to helm a big budget comic book movie, a wholly appropriate milestone considering her difficulties in getting her films about black characters produced. “I cannot fail because there’s so few of us that any failures are so highlighted and spotlighted and I don’t want to hurt the next person that’s going to be coming behind me,” Prince-Bythewood told Deadline. “I want to do what Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman and have them say, ‘Oh damn we were wrong. And actually, you know what? Black people, we can do anything. So give us more opportunities to make any film we want to make.’”

The film was a hit (though Prince-Bythewood has opted not to direct the sequel), so Prince-Bythewood has succeeded in her mission. With her next film, The Woman King, a big budget historical epic set in ancient Africa with an all-black, female-led cast, it looks like Gina Prince Bythewood might have finally dragged Hollywood up to speed with her own trailblazing ways. Though the director may still be relatively unsung considering what she has achieved in terms of telling stories about women and the African-American experience, it looks like that might change soon for Gina Prince Bythewood…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs John Lee Hancock, Allison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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