Gina Prince-Bythewood: The Warrior Director
AMBASSADOR DIGITAL MAGAZINE Editor- In-Chief Musa Jackson has an in depth conversation with his longtime friend the award winning producer, writer & director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Some of her most ambitious films Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights, Secret Life of Bees, The Old Guard or her mega hit The Woman King couldn’t have come to fruition without having heart and vision.
Filmmaking is an art form not for the weak. It takes courage and fighting for what you believe against all odds. Gina exemplifies masterfully what is takes as a director to translate what’s on the page and bring it to the screen with all the passion of a warrior.
" I was carrying a bunch of equipment on a student set and it just hit me. I’m a director. I think it was because for the first time I understood that person telling everyone what to do and telling the story is a director. This certainty of who I was supposed to be. A beautiful thing to know that deeply and that early."
MUSA Where are you from?
GINA I was born in Chicago.
MUSA People think you’re from L.A.
GINA I know that’s because of Love & Basketball ( Gina’s first studio film) I was born in Chicago. Adopted there. When I was about a year old we moved to Northern California. Raised up north in Monterey County which was tough. I’m not going to lie. They are not a bastion of diversity up there. But what I did have was sports. That was my saving grace. I’m super shy but on the track I felt my true self could come out. So much swagger. I was on volume ten. I was very good and it gave me self esteem 100 percent. When I decided to go to UCLA I knew I wanted to be a writer. Going down to Los Angeles changed everything for me. It was getting out of a small town that was suffocating me in terms of who I was as a Black woman. Being able to come to UCLA and run track. Being in a different environment was everything to me. Then to get into film school. Which was my dream and to find my voice of who I was as a filmmaker. What I wanted to say to the world. It was there that I had my first audience. I wanted to see myself and I hadn’t really seen myself up there on screen or TV. So my stories are going to center Black women.
MUSA So when you were at UCLA was directing always the end goal for you?
GINA In High school I was addicted to soap operas. You will get a kick out of this. One of the soap operas I loved was Another World. ( laughs) A young man by the name of Reggie Rock Bythewood was on it. I remember reading an article in Soap Opera Digest on Reggie and his character. But also an article about Soap Opera writers. The first time I realized that someone gets paid to write this and gets paid a lot of money. So that’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer and write soap operas. So I came to UCLA but you can’t get into the film school until your junior year. So the first two years I worked on student films. They have a soap opera that’s broadcast nation wide so I worked on that. It was there I had an “ah ha” moment. I was carrying a bunch of equipment on a student set and it just hit me. I’m a director. I think it was because for the first time I understood that person telling everyone what to do and telling the story is a director. This certainty of who I was supposed to be. A beautiful thing to know that deeply and that early. From that moment forward I’m a writer director. And how do I become that and that was getting into UCLA. It’s a story I’ve told before but when I applied to film school I was rejected.
MUSA What did you do?
GINA I remember sobbing the whole night thinking what am I going to do. I went to the counselor to appeal the decision. He said we don’t do that. You can’t appeal I went home cried again and wrote this impassioned letter to the head of the film school, Ruth Schwartz. Telling her why they made a mistake. The arrogance of youth. I sent it and two days later I got a phone call from her. She said I got your letter and I’m going to let you in. It was staggering and set the tone for my career. It set the trajectory of my life. It set the tone to overcome no. Absolutely.
MUSA What’s that one film that inspired you?
GINA I have a few. “Black Orpheus” was beautiful love story that I saw early on. “The Graduate” taught me the power of music to tell a story. I never let go of that. I feel music is so important to my storytelling. Hoop Dreams was another one that absolutely inspired me. Then “Broadcast News” is a brilliant film. But will also have you crying. So deep. I felt like that was the type of film I wanted to be making. A film that could make me feel that deeply.
MUSA You were a writer on the now iconic sitcom “A Different World” which is where you met the incredible filmmaker Reggie Bythewood ( future husband) What was that experience like?
GINA My first job in the industry I’m writing for my favorite show. I go from watching Dwayne and Whitley to writing for Dwayne and Whitley. It was amazing! It was run by Black women. Susan Fales-Hill was twenty eight years old running a top ten show. She took me under her wing. I mean Debbie Allen. The fact that she was there. She was so giving and kind to me. Yvette Lee Bowser took me under her wing. She showed me the way, showed me the work ethic. Be the first one there, do all nighters, do what you have to do to make yourself invaluable. These women guided me and being on my first show, seeing Black women in power like that was my normal. That was invaluable because I never saw myself other than being in that position. Reggie and I were hired a week apart. We clicked immediately on a friendship level as best friends. Just a shared desire to change the world with our art. That’s where it started. He’s such a brilliant writer. We got to do these deep episodes with A Different World. Not only do the fun but also say something. To know that show boosted enrollment to HBCU’s astronomically. We really got to understand the power of what we do early on.
MUSA That was an amazing time. Just a side note. I’m going on record. I remember when you and I met on the set of A Different World. You were this beautiful girl, writer but also this incredible athlete. I remember looking at Reggie, who is this sports guy. And I’m not. ( laughs) I witnessed this chemistry between you two. I said to him, I think she likes you. ( Gina laughs) I love telling that story. I was right.
GINA ( laughing) You were right.
MUSA “Love and Basketball” was a game changer on many levels. It was a love story centered around a Black female basketball player. Something we had never seen. Written and directed by a Black woman. What was the inspiration for this landmark film?
GINA I wanted to make a Black “When Harry Met Sally” I loved that movie. And I again I wasn’t seeing myself reflected and certainly not in love. We were only in comedies. Or romantic comedies. But I love love stories that wreck you then build you back up and leave you hopeful. We weren’t getting those films. I knew I wanted to make an epic love story. What was my version of that. It was digging into my own life. Being an athlete, like Monica ( lead role in Love and Basketball) who wanted to find love. But also what I wanted to do was not make it one story. With the other half of the story being just an accessory. Let’s follow both characters. So I had an opportunity to create Monica, a black woman that we had never seen before but also Quincy. To see his life and struggles. We see both of them. So we care about them as they figure it out. They can come together in that great love they deserve.
MUSA “The Woman King is such a powerful story helmed by a Black Woman Director starring a majority Black female cast. Why is so important to tell that particular story?
GINA We come from warriors. So many of us are taught here that our history starts with enslavement. Like every culture there is pain, torture and trauma but there’s also incredible beauty and strength. So we come from that. So it was to open up Pandora’s box in the best way. Let us understand and be connected to something other than what we’ve been taught. But also when I read the script and these women rise up out of the grass. These women, these heroes. I want to shoot that. I know I felt when I read that now let me give that feeling to an audience. And let us foremost see ourselves reflected heroically beautifully, vulnerably and complex. But then let the world see us like that as well. We’ve never had a historical epic that focused on us. So it’s where I wanted to go with my career. I loved the sisterhood of these women. I loved that fact that they were real warriors. That fact that me growing up as an athlete these are the women that I’ve been around. But so many women don’t have that. To know that you have an innate warrior within you. Then Viola Davis was attached so. ( laughs)
GINA How often do you get to touch greatness? Working with Viola would give me that opportunity. So profound to shoot this story, on the soil with this group of women. It was intentional to cast Black woman from all over our diaspora to come together to tell this story of our ancestors. Whether you were Jamaican, South African, West African, Ugandan, African American. We all started in the same place. To come together with no divisions. We often feel in Hollywood of who can play what part beyond where you come from. This was Black women coming together to tell a story on the continent. It was profound.
"...I had an opportunity to create Monica, a black woman that we had never seen before but also Quincy. To see his life and struggles. We see both of them. So we care about them as they figure it out. They can come together in that great love they deserve."
MUSA To say the least. When I saw it in the theater it felt like a bomb went off. On screen and in the theater. The reaction was just incredible from men and women. It crossed so many boundaries. To show how great this story was. Yes profound to say the least.
GINA I loved that my boys (Cassius and Toussaint) loved the movie. They get to see themselves as a King. Again this is not made up. It’s real. At the end it starts with me wanting to see us this way but I want the world to see us this way. Not only see us but empathize with us, cheer for us, cry with us, laugh with us. That’s what you want as a filmmaker for everyone to look up on the screen and be with us for two hours and fourteen minutes.
MUSA “The Old Guard” was one of Netflix top ten grossing films and the only one directed by an African American woman. Because of that success are steaming platforms giving black filmmakers more creative control now?
GINA What they are doing is giving more opportunities to filmmakers who probably would not have gotten the opportunity to tell personal stories. Like Radha Blank “40 Year Old Version”. Love that film. Would she have been able to get that film out without a stream? Maybe not. You see filmmakers doing their passion projects at steamers. There is less risk so to speak. With “The Old Guard” it was originally developed for a studio. But they were nervous about putting out an action film starring two women. Whereas Netflix wanted an action film starring two women. That was the difference. We went to Netflix because they gave us way more money and were excited about it as opposed to scared of it. So it does that for you. It gives you a global audience. My whole career all I’ve been told is my films don’t travel. Because the world doesn’t want to see Black folks ( laughs) They love our music what are you talking about. But it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. What Netflix has done is opened up the global audience to filmmakers as well. The Old Guard dropped in 190 countries in one day. Completely over indexed on the continent. All the countries in Africa it was a huge there. That’s a beautiful thing. So when you drop The Woman King you’ve already broken that dam and people are more open and eager to go to the theater to see our stories.
MUSA You are a terrific storyteller. What I love is you have powerful women in lead roles with characters that are nuanced. Monica in Love and Basketball, Noni in Beyond the Lights, Mamie Till-Mobley in Women of the Movement, Andy in The Old Guard and General Nanisca in The Woman King. Being in your position as a filmmaker is it by design or a level of obligation to have these types of female characters?
GINA By design. I’m my first audience. I’m making movies I want to see. I’m focusing on characters that I’m connected with on a guttural level. That inspires me. You have to be inspired by the stories you’re telling, the characters you’re creating. It’s a disservice to us to put out characters that are perfect. Because that’s not real that’s not truthful. That’s what everybody else does in their films. Make us the perfect sidekick. No. The beauty of the work that we do is that we’re putting real women up on the screen that are complex and vulnerable and strong. Like all those different things. Real women with full arcs to their characters. That’s what has been missing from what Hollywood has put out. The more Black filmmakers that are in that chair controlling it you’re just going to get better and better characters. Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Reggie Rock Bythewood. We’re doing it because we are finding those positions of power telling the stories we want to tell.
MUSA You and your powerhouse filmmaker husband Reggie Rock Bythewood have worked together in the past. You have your own film company Undisputed Cinema. What types of projects can we expect from you guys?
GINA We are excited about disrupting the genre. At times just putting us in the film disrupts the genre. We want to see ourselves in every single genre. We want to change the narrative of who we are. We want to tell stories that haven’t been told. We have a saying that drives us. Get the audience on the edge of their seats and when they are leaning forward hit them with the truth. We entertain and we can change the world.
MUSA You’re paving the way for Black women to have fully bodied careers. Roles as writer, director, producer but also as a leader of being co-chair of DGA. ( Directors Guild of America)
GINA African American Steering Committee.
MUSA How important is it for us to have a seat at the table?
GINA It’s imperative. Co-chair of the African American Steering Committee which is all the Black members of the DGA. I’m also on the Board of Directors of the DGA. Spent four years on the executive committee of the Directors Branch of the Academy. We need to be at those tables. We have to be in those conversations. We need to have a voice in speaking up for us because the reality of Hollywood is everyone thinks that all this change happens. Then we look at the numbers that just came out, the numbers are dismal for black filmmakers. They are getting a little better in television but in the feature space it’s dismal. We need to be at that table fighting from within.
MUSA You’ve had a very successful high octane career. But just as important you’ve had incredible family life with your husband Reggie and raised two amazing young men Cassius and Toussaint. You’ve done all of this all out of the spotlight. With the demands of the industry how were you able to achieve that?
GINA Part of it is the reality of Hollywood. Who gets amplified. You see who gets amplified. Let me say this I’m very grateful for Ambassador Digital Magazine and it’s incredibly cool and very rare. That type of visibility allows us to keep making the films we want to make. It’s never been about having our names in lights and being a star. Raising our platforms to do the work that we want to do. The bigger the platform the more we can speak on the things that are important to us.
MUSA You’ve also been a champion behind the scenes for emerging writers and directors. You established a scholarship at your Alma mater UCLA. What do you get from that?
GINA There is nothing being cool about being the only one in the room. It’s unconscionable in 2023. That you can still go into rooms and be the only one. When you get througn that door as a black filmmaker you hold that door open and you reach back and pull others through. There’s a great excitement for me to do that. I see talent. I remember being on the side of it. Coming out of film school wide eyed and having no idea of how it works. I was so lucky to get on A Different World out of college and have great mentors. I’ve never forgotten that. So it’s about me giving back and giving that same energy to people that I see who are talented. But it’s fulfilling because I know they are going to make movies and tv shows that I want to watch. Further the conversation and continue to build on this thing that we have. What we do is so important and the image that we put in the world. And how the world sees us is so important. Decades of damage that’s been done and the more of us that are in that fight. We need that. If I see that in you I’m helping you.
MUSA Looking back over your career what advice might you have given your younger self.
GINA I should know the answer to this. I think I would whisper in her ear it’s gonna be hella hard and there is going to be so many fights but you’re going to get through it. You’re going to keep making the films you want to make. Because every film that I’ve done has been such a fight and years in the making. There are times within those years where you just want to be curled up on the floor. But you keep fighting and then suddenly I’m on set making the film. So if I just had that knowledge that you know what it’s gonna take a couple of years but you’re gonna be on set making Love and Basketball, making Beyond the lights, making The Woman King. That’s what I would do let her know.
MUSA I might add that you’re going to meet an incredible human being, my friend super talented filmmaker Reggie and get married have two beautiful amazing sons and have incredible dope career.
GINA ( smiling) Just like Love and Basketball. You can have love and you can have a career.
MUSA True indeed.
AMBASSADOR DIGITAL MAGAZINE L.A.
Talent: Gina Prince-Bythewood @gpbmadeit
Photographer: Reese Sherman @reeseshermanphotography
Digital Tech: Jamarr Ferguson @thegentlemans_happyhour
Lighting & BTS: Aaron Tyler @aarontylerphotography
Production Assistant: Ieisha Lyday @iamieishakemal
Wardrobe Stylist: Jason Griffin @mrjasongriffin
Assistant Stylist: Hakoda David @hakoda_david
Hair Stylist: Tiffany Dennis Daughtery Brown @tiffdoeshair
Makeup Artist: Brandy Allen @brandyallen
Looks 1: Cover: Couture Trench, pants, Jewelry @hakoda_david
Couture Showroom: @kalimysteek_showroom
Looks 2: Sequin tuxedo jacket, pants
Karl Lagerfeld @karllagerfeld
Looks 3: Plaid suit Elie Tahari @elietahari
Founder & Editor In Chief:
Musa Jackson @iammusajackson
Creative Director: Paul Morejon
YouTube: Ambassador Digital Magazine
Facebook: Ambassador Digital Magazine.
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