Screenwriter and director Gina Prince-Bythewood loves love. And, if you’re familiar with her body of work, then you may already know this.
Her portfolio of work includes Love and Basketball, which is about two childhood friends who eat, sleep and breathe basketball, and ultimately fall in love with each other. Beyond the Lights portrays the life of a pop star, who attempts suicide due to the pressure that comes with being in entertainment, and is saved by a cop-turned-lover.
[Editor's note: This interview originally published on May 7, 2018. We are rersurfacing this in honor of the success of Gina's most recent film 'The Woman King.']
But what she loves more is having Black actors and actresses bring those love stories to life.
“I write what I want to see and I want to see us on screen in love stories,” Prince-Bythewood emphasized.
In this interview, we cover her relationship with colleague-turned-friend Sanaa Lathan, her competitive spirit which has helped her in the long run, and the reason she refuses to use the n-word in her work.
Her Agenda: Tell me, what does working with Sanaa bring out of you? What’s your relationship like with her?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: With Sanaa, I write it and she elevates it, which I love. I trust her with the characters I create. I trust her with the words, and I trust her work ethic. I just trust her. We bring it out of each other as creatives. It’s fun to write something and know that someone’s going to kill it. When you have that then you’re even more excited to write.
Her Agenda: I want to take a step back and talk about that moment you realized that writing wasn’t a hobby for you and that you wanted to make it a career?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, there were a couple ‘aha’ moments. Foremost, I have always written short stories. My parents actually found one that I wrote when I was nine. I was just a little girl, always writing stories. I’m a voracious reader. I read 20 books a week. I remember in high school I was obsessed with soap operas and I happened to read an article in Soap Opera Digest about how much soap opera writers make. And I was shocked. I [thought] ‘Wow! I could do that. I know I love these shows. I could write and make good money.’ And that was part of my thinking in terms of going to film school.
But once I got into film school, I had greater goals in mind. I was on a set of a film that I was volunteering for. I was carrying equipment and literally an [epiphany] hit me and a voice said, ‘You're a director,’ and I don't know where that came from. That was never my thought growing up. It was just about writing and to have that moment. It was just striking to me. And at that point forward I was a writer and director.
Her Agenda: Do you feel that you have a responsibility to Black culture?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely. There are so few of us making movies and having the opportunity to make movies. So, if you look at my body of work, it focuses on Black women. It’s twofold: One, I have a responsibility to do stories that inspire me. Two, I want to put those faces up on screens, so others can look up and see people. Women, who look like them that we do not get to see very often. That’s not to say I’ll never do a film that doesn’t focus on us, but it’s absolutely been my drive.
Her Agenda: Speaking of your drive, you were talking about Beyond The Lights and how shopping it around to a lot of studios they wanted you to switch up the characters and take the suicide part out. Do you think it’s harder to get started on a film or do you think it’s harder to keep going? What did you have to do to kind of conquer both?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s not hard to get started on something, but it’s also overwhelming because no matter how many times you do it, writing is hard and getting a script right is hard and it takes time. It is absolutely hard to sustain and have the stamina. That’s the thing that hurts people in this industry who are starting out. You have to have stamina because you’re going to hear no a thousand times and when you’re writing something, especially if you’re writing a spec script, you have to have confidence in the story, confidence in your ability, confidence that someone is going to give you money to make it, confidence that an audience will come. It’s a constant reminder and it is very hard. Then when you’ve written it, you’ve got to have a group of people around you who you trust who will be honest with you. With Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights every single studio turned it down. This was a long process, like a year, of people telling you ‘No’ or ‘We don’t want it to star a Black woman’ or ‘Can you cast the male lead white?’
All these things that you have to fight and push through. Again, have the confidence in your work to know that you just need one yes. This industry has absolutely taught me to overcome, and that coupled with me growing up as an athlete that has absolutely given me the stamina, fight, and ambition to have longevity in this industry because everything you’re taught as an athlete is what I applied to this industry. And it’s super helpful.
Her Agenda: Which tactics from your time as an athlete helped you as a screenwriter?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: There are a couple of things. Foremost, outwork everybody. I mean, that’s what you have to do as an athlete. If you want to succeed, that’s what you have to do in this industry. ''Leave it all out on the floor' is a big one. As a competitor, having a competitive spirit, [you want] to be the best. It’s so funny that we’re taught that it’s a bad thing or a negative thing, like with Serena Williams. She wanted to be the best in the world and she got hammered for that. ‘Oh, she’s cocky,’ like, why shouldn’t you strive for that? And look at her. She’s the best in the world. But for [people] to say that it’s a bad thing, [when] it’s not. That’s what she’s striving for. That’s what I’m striving for. If you’re striving for that and then it pushes you. So, that competitive edge and not being embarrassed or self-conscious about being competitive.
Her Agenda: We spoke about you having a responsibility to Black culture. Why do you think it’s so important to explore black love in your work?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, I love love. It’s a beautiful thing. I love love stories. If you’re not seeing it, then sometimes it’s hard to believe it. I want us to believe in love and want us to be inspired and aspire to the love that I put on screen. One of the greatest compliments I ever got on a film was when we did a preview screening of Love & Basketball. It was the first time the film had ever been screened for an audience and it was at a theater in Crenshaw. It was a hundred percent Black audience and people filled out [surveys] after on what they thought about the movie and a 17-year-old Black boy answered what he liked about the movie [by writing] it taught him how to love. That was amazing to me.
So, the fact that movies can have the kind of impact, at the end of the day, I write what I want to see and I want to see us on screen, in love stories. Not just romantic comedies. When we do get movies, it’s usually romantic comedies and I want that kind of love story that wrecks you, makes you cry, and then builds you back up. The epic, beautiful, great love story that has depth as opposed to surface storytelling, and jokes. I think we need that. I go to the movies to feel and I want to give that to an audience.
Her Agenda: What are some projects you’re working on right now?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I‘m working on the film for SONY called Silver & Black about two Marvel characters in the Spider-Man universe. It’s a different world and I really love the characters. It’s two women and it’s never been done before. Really looking to do something different within the genre. I just [want to] elevate and put them out in the world. And, because it’s me, I’m going to play with the casting a little bit and get a good Black female up on screen in that genre.
[Editor's note: This interview originally published on May 7, 2018. We are resurfacing this in honor of the success of Gina's most recent film 'The Woman King.']
Her Agenda: I interviewed Yvonne Orji from Insecure and she said it’s her dream to work with you. So I’m going to be a vessel, used by the Lord Jesus himself and ask, what can we do to get a collab?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I saw Yvonne in Insecure and I like her work. In fact, she’s really good and then I saw her Ted Talk that she did where she talked about Love & Basketball. Then, she did another interview where she talked about Love & Basketball. So, I just reached out and met up because I respected her work. And we sat down, talked, and clicked. She talked about something she wanted me to do and I said [this is] a movie and I want to be a part of that. I’m actually producing the project that we’re going to do.
We were just together Friday talking about the film. It’s really good. It’s deep, cool and something you haven’t seen before. I’m excited about it. I don’t want to call it a romantic comedy because there’s so much depth to it, but it’s so funny, and dealing with love. Let’s call it a love story with comedy. Romantic comedy makes it sound fluffy and it’s not fluffy. But, it’s a very cool love story.
Her Agenda: What’s your motto? What’s that one quote that you know, keeps you going?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I’m very big on quotes, but I can narrow it down to three: One is ‘Overcome no.’ The second is ‘Fall seven times, stand up eight,’ and the third is really geared towards this industry, being an artist and a filmmaker that is ‘Anybody can portray reality, but an artist portrays what reality should be.’
Her Agenda: What does the last quote mean to you?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s everything to me. [For example], some people use the n-word in movies. You won’t see it in my films. Some people will say ‘Well, this is how people talk. It’s not a big deal. Just keep it real.’ But again, as an artist, [I want] to show the world what it could be. You know, Oprah said it best: the n-word is probably what so many of our ancestors heard before they were hung from a noose. So, why? Why do I want to normalize or perpetuate that word? The more we don’t use it, the less normal it becomes and it’s not necessary. That’s a big one for me. The other is people getting high on TV and film.
Film is so powerful. Teachings are so powerful and when you see characters that you’re falling in love with getting high and it’s no big deal, then it becomes normal. I’ve never gotten high in my life and [same for my husband]. I have two boys now, and I don’t want them to either. I don’t want to normalize it. I don’t want to put it out in the world and that’s my moral compass. I have two boys and if it’s going to be in something I’ve made, there is going to be consequences to it. The biggest reason is that I have a family member who’s an addict. You don’t grow up with that and think there are no consequences to people getting high. It’s a horrible thing to grow up with. As an artist, I want to change that.
[Editor’s note: This interview was published on May 7th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]