Conventional wisdom would have it that a violent, fantastical action thriller about a group of supernatural mercenaries doesn’t lend itself to personal filmmaking. But when the director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, conventional wisdom would be wrong.
“I love the normalcy of it,” Prince-Bythewood said during a recent Zoom call from her home office in Los Angeles, noting that Andy and Nile’s bond, based on equal parts rivalry, respect and friendship, felt utterly real. “It’s just so reflective of how I grew up, being an athlete [along with] the women around me. Like, that’s who we were. We were athletic and ambitious and just aggressive and going after what we wanted, and there was no shame in that — except in the outside world that told you there’s something wrong with you for loving those things.”
Many of those dynamics inspired “Love & Basketball,” Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 feature debut. The film, about teenage basketball players whose friendship turns into romance, starred Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, marked the arrival of a promising new talent in Prince-Bythewood and has grown into a beloved rom-com classic. Since then, the director has chosen her projects for love: In 2008 she made the adaptation of “The Secret Life of Bees.” More recently, she directed the delicious romantic drama “Beyond the Lights” and with her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood produced the Fox series “Shots Fired.”
With “The Old Guard,” Prince-Bythewood has become the first black woman to direct a major comic-book movie, a distinction that carries both pride and weary disbelief that it could have possibly taken this long. (She’s part of a cadre of female directors making big-screen spectacles this year, a group that includes Cathy Yan, Chloe Zhao, Patty Jenkins, Cate Shortland and Niki Caro.)
Having supporting characters played by a diverse group of actors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli and Chiwetel Ejiofor) attracted her just as much as the story of Andy and Nile. “I love the fact that it’s this group of warriors from different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders who have come together organically to save humanity,” she observes, adding that when she first read Rucka’s script and started visualizing the movie, “I was seeing the world that I see, which is diverse and different and not all of the sameness that can sometimes befall what comes out of Hollywood.”
When she began tackling the material, she adds, her identity as an African American woman informed nearly every decision she made. “The things that I influenced, that I noticed, that I corrected, that I amplified, absolutely come from a black female lens,” she says firmly. Although she was thrilled with Rucka’s original script, she asked him to flesh out Nile’s backstory, adding layers having to do with her family and experience in the military (where, not incidentally, her colleagues are women of color, much like the institution itself). Even the film’s many fight scenes bear the signature of someone who is coming from a different angle than the usual white male gaze. One in particular, between Andy and Nile on a cargo plane, was particularly sensitive for Prince-Bythewood.
“I didn’t want anyone to look at that and say, ‘That’s a sexy cat fight,’” she says. “No, I want you to see two badass women going toe to toe, but also seeing their vulnerability within that. Because for me, that’s what badass is: that swagger, that strength, but also empathy and vulnerability.”
In many ways, “The Old Guard” is singularly well-suited to this moment of racial reckoning. Not only does it provide some old-fashioned, escapist diversion in the age of the coronavirus, but it looks like the future the movie industry increasingly realizes it must embrace in the wake of revived calls for inclusion and representation — on screen and behind the camera.
Moments like this have happened before, she notes, but this time feels different. For one thing, she had already successfully pitched two projects focused on black women “that were not a fight for the first time in my entire career.”
But even when her phone started ringing after protests over police brutality and George Floyd’s death, she says, white executives on the other end struck a new tone. “The people in power who have called me [are] wide open, asking, talking, listening, without being defensive for the first time in a very long time,” she says. “My husband and I have often called out people we’ve worked with, and they get defensive. ‘Oh, we know, and we’re working on it,’ or ‘I know, I know, it’s such a problem, but we just can’t find somebody.’ ” This time, she says, “There’s zero of that. There’s an acknowledgment of complicity and failure and a true desire to do better. So I’m hopeful about that. My only caveat is that for true equity to happen across the board, but certainly in Hollywood, some of your comfort and power have to be taken away. And when people realize that, will they suddenly go back to what’s comfortable?”
All too often, implicit bias is baked into the development process itself. Earlier this year, Prince-Bythewood wrote a column in Variety in which she recounted an episode when a white script doctor — who happened to be one of the most respected writers in the business — did a “polish” on a film she was working on about a strong black female heroine. He systematically disempowered the protagonist, inserting cues like “She trembles” or “She cowers,” Prince-Bythewood recalled.
“It was staggering,” she says today. “There’s a whole industry within our industry that’s just about rewriting and automation and ‘We’ve got to bring somebody in to fix this.’ And it just dilutes an original and unique voice.”
Over the past dozen years, a new generation of black filmmakers have come into their own, a group that includes Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Dee Rees, Justin Simien and Ryan Coogler. Although Prince-Bythewood is part of that resurgence, this isn’t her first renaissance: “Love & Basketball” was part of a late ’90s, early aughts golden age of black romcoms that included “Brown Sugar,” “Love Jones” and “The Best Man.” In both eras, what looked like solid progress was belied by discouraging numbers; she points to 2019 statistics released by the Writers Guild of America in which 80 percent of all the movie scripts were written by white men.
“The numbers are dismal,” she says. “But the ray of hope is the diversity of stories that are being told. . . . There are so many interesting filmmakers out there that are getting that opportunity to make movies that are distinct and different. We don’t have to just do romantic comedies or gangster films. And that’s what we’ve been screaming for this whole time. Let us show you the breadth of our humanity and let you see it through our lens, not from a lens that is not authentic or truthful.”