How Gina Prince-Bythewood Made the Best Superhero Movie of the Summer
The star filmmaker opens up to Melissa Leon about her Netflix actioner “The Old Guard,” why her Spider-Man spinoff fell through, and coaching white Hollywood on Black Lives Matter.
To do right by a fighter’s story, you let a fighter tell it. And as far as storytellers in Hollywood go, there are few with a fight in them quite like Gina Prince-Bythewood.
The trait pulses through each of the writer-director’s five films, each in their own way about the ferocity of a young woman’s drive—her desire to love and pursue her ambitions, each without compromising the other. There are bits of Prince-Bythewood in all her heroines, whether she’s the lovestruck star athlete of the director’s breakout first indie, Love & Basketball (2000), the aspiring writer discovering where she comes from in The Secret Life of Bees (2008), or the pop star who learns to trust her own voice in 2014’s Beyond the Lights.
Prince-Bythewood’s films center Black women and weave between their pasts and present, granting texture to each of their histories—illuminating the insecurities, dreams, hopes and scars that define who they are. We come to identify with their fight to create space for themselves outside the one-dimensional box the world often assigns them. (A fight Prince-Bythewood is familiar with herself.) We root for her characters, indulge in their victories. Basically, you know it’s a Gina Prince-Bythewood movie when, by the time the credits roll, you feel you’ve just had a long conversation with a fascinating new friend, and you aren’t ready just yet to say goodbye.
That’s all true of Prince-Bythewood’s latest, and biggest film to date, too, the groundbreaking Netflix action flick The Old Guard. Adapted from the comic-book series by writer Greg Rucka (who pens the movie’s script) and artist Leandro Fernández, it follows a new category of fighters in the Prince-Bythewood canon: four immortal warriors, led by the 6,000-year-old Andromache of Scythia (“Andy” for short, played by Charlize Theron), and their unexpected new recruit, a compassionate young Marine named Nile (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne).
The movie, now streaming, makes Prince-Bythewood the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book film—one with 10 times the budget of her last film, Beyond the Lights ($7 million), which itself had a budget only half the size of her first, Love & Basketball ($14 million). Those undersung films are now beloved by fans and critics, but took time to find their audience. Studios denied them foreign distribution, contending that films with Black leads have limited “reach.” That they got made at all was another sort of miracle—a disheartening number of studios rejected Prince-Bythewood’s pitches for them outright. Even interested parties sometimes had the gall to ask for her Black characters to be cast as white.
The Old Guard’s warm reception since its debut Friday then is a long-overdue affirmation. After two decades spent challenging conventional Hollywood thinking, refusing to take “no” for an answer, and fighting to get her movies made and seen, Prince-Bythewood’s latest premiered in 190 countries at once (and shot straight to Netflix’s No. 1 trending spot, where it lingered all weekend). It’s earned critical praise and affection from viewers for its fresh take on an overstuffed genre, and for being the rare comic-book movie to center not only two female leads, but also an openly gay couple in a sweeping love story. Also, it completely kicks ass.
Now she’s primed for something bigger: a historical war epic for TriStar Pictures, led by Oscar winner Viola Davis as the general of an all-female army in the 19th-century African kingdom of Dahomey. “Everything I’ve done, including The Old Guard, put me in a position to make this film,” she says of the upcoming The Woman King. “I couldn’t turn it down.”
“I kept dreaming of a time where I would be at a place where scripts would come to me and I would then choose and direct, and now I am at that place,” Prince-Bythewood says. She’s happy to be here. But she’ll tell it to you straight, too: she knows the fight to tell stories like hers is still far from over.
When Prince-Bythewood blips onto the screen for our Zoom call (a life-size cutout of Love & Basketball’s central couple, Monica and Quincy, just visible against the yellow walls of her home office in L.A.), it’s T-minus “what is it, seven hours?” until The Old Guard’s Netflix drop. Quarantine until now has been busy; she finished post-production just a week and a half ago, capping off two years of work. “It gave me something to focus on every day,” she allows, “but I’m absolutely looking forward to a nice rest after this.”
Two qualities in Rucka’s script for The Old Guard convinced her to vie for the reins to direct. First, its characters. Andy’s crew of wandering immortals have spent centuries saving lives, forcing their bodies through one painfully gory death after another, ad infinitum, in the hope of bettering the world. But little of what they do seems to matter; they can’t stem humanity’s appetite for violence and greed. And the Old Guard grows more fractured by the day. “That feeling of these characters trying to find their purpose, trying to find their ‘why,’ that’s something that I absolutely, absolutely went through at one time in my life and felt very connected to,” Prince-Bythewood says. “That was such a human thing.”
Second, there was Nile. “The fact that one of the leads of this big action film is a young Black female, that meant a tremendous deal to me. It’s something I want to see. It’s something the world needs to see: us in heroic roles. And not just us, but all people of color.”
The director went into her pitch meeting with Skydance (the production company behind big-name action franchises including Terminator and Mission: Impossible) inspired by the superhero mold-breaking action dramas Black Panther and Logan, “two films that had all the muscularity of an action flick, yet I cried during both of those—like, not a little tear, I legit cried because I connected so much with the story and the characters.” It helped that she’d walked in with comic-book movie experience of her own: she’d spent a year and a half developing the Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black for Sony and Marvel before reaching an impasse with the studios over the antiheroine team-up.
“I don’t think they had confidence in those two characters as standalones,” she now ventures. “I did. I think the script was dope.” The last she heard, Sony was mulling “separating the two” into different films, or maybe a limited series. (Two more male-fronted Spider-Man spinoffs, a sequel to Venom and the Jared Leto-starring Morbius, are meanwhile still set for release next year.)
When it came time to approach her first action scene—in which Layne and Theron throw down in vicious hand-to-hand combat aboard a plane—Prince-Bythewood knew what she did and, importantly, didn’t want. The action must stay “grounded and visceral,” she says, “and not rely on wires or crazy camerawork to tell the story.” It was the first scene of the entire shoot, but the director set a high bar. She wanted it to feel like the earth-shaking bathroom fight scene in Mission: Impossible—Fallout.
Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill had months to perfect that scene, while Prince-Bythewood’s set had just five days for theirs, but who’s counting? The director pushed her actresses—one of them among the greatest action stars working today, the other a newcomer to combat choreography—to train to film as many of their own stunts as possible. (Birds of Prey fight choreographer Daniel Hernandez of 87Eleven, the go-to action design house behind the John Wick franchise, worked on The Old Guard.)
“I needed the actors to really be in those scenes so it could further character, and both Kiki and Charlize put in the work,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I’m an athlete. And I know what I love about action. I know there are times when I look up and see women fighting, and it doesn't feel good to me, or it feels like they just pretended that this was two men and went about it that way. Or they go the opposite way and try to make sexy cat fights, where someone throws a punch and, oh, look, the shirt came up! I didn’t want any of that. I wanted people to marvel at the athleticism of these two warriors.”
In that plane fight scene, Andy is testing Nile—toying with her at first, really, as the furious Marine lashes out. Nile’s punches grow wilder and more desperate with every throw. Yet she never stops swinging, eventually landing one hit, then another, leaving the warrior with six millennia of fighting experience on her in shock. “That scene tells an audience who Nile is,” Prince-Bythewood explains. “The fact that she kept coming, and her arm gets broken, and she keeps coming. That says a lot.”
There have been many equally telling moments through Prince-Bythewood’s life.
The former UCLA track and basketball star knew as early as her junior year in college that she wanted to be a director. The university’s film school rejected her application, however, shutting the dream down before it started. “A lot of tears,” she remembers now. “It was such a shock because I felt I did everything right.” She appealed the decision with a counselor, another dead end. “He said, no, there’s nothing you can do. That was going home and having another cry.” After rallying herself again, she tossed in a hail mary, pouring her heart into a letter to the head of the film school to explain why her rejection was a mistake.
Two days later, Prince-Bythewood got a phone call; she was in. She tried over the years to track down the professor who changed her mind, to thank her and to ask what convinced her to take a chance. “It absolutely changed the entire trajectory of my life,” she says. (The professor, Ruth E. Schwartz, has since passed away.)
“What is amazing to me is, I’m a very shy person. I’m very introverted. But there was something that drove me to do this,” she says of her determination to direct. “I attribute it to growing up an athlete and all the things that sports taught me about being aggressive and going after what you want, about outworking everybody, about leaving it all out on the floor, about trying to be the best. That was a daily thing for me and the thing I wish more women got. Because I feel like most young girls and young women are taught to hide their voice and their desires and ambitions and aggressions.”
That’s often doubly true for Black women. “The fact that Serena Williams, who’s one of my heroes, was chastised for saying she wanted to be No. 1. Like, why is that a bad thing? That’s not being cocky. That’s confidence. What do you want her to do, aspire to be No. 37?”
After graduation, she applied for a writer’s apprenticeship on the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World—and bombed the interview. “I was unprepared and giving monosyllabic answers—I did not get the job,” she recounted in 2015. But she called producer Susan Fales-Hill every day; a month later, the writer they’d hired left and Prince-Bythewood was offered the job.
Prince-Bythewood has built her career on that persistence. When, as a “no-time director,” scripts weren’t coming her way to direct, she wrote her own. (“And the thing is, I don’t love writing,” she laughs. “It’s so painful. But I love the process of rewriting and directing what I’ve written.”) When studio after studio rejected her pitches for romances starring Black leads, she kept on knocking. Even once she’d gotten her first films made—without compromising her vision for them and not, for instance, giving in to the executive who suggested that Beyond the Lights’ male lead be cast as a white guy—different barriers appeared. Enter the MPAA.
Love & Basketball’s iconic sex scene, set to Maxwell’s cover of “This Woman’s Work,” at first earned the movie an R rating—allegedly because, as Prince-Bythewood has said, the association determined that the scene felt too real and “you can tell it’s the girl’s first time.” (Never mind that another film out at the time, Meet Joe Black, featured Brad Pitt’s character losing his virginity, and got away with a PG-13.) “It was so devastating because I wanted younger girls to be able to see this film,” she recalled. In the end, Prince-Bythewood was forced to trim the scene down.
It would not be her last spar with the MPAA. “The same thing happened with Beyond the Lights. I got an R rating at first because of the plane scene,” she says, referring to the sex scene in which pop star Noni, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, straddles Nate Parker’s Kaz aboard a private jet, coaxing an overwhelmed “I think I love you” from him. Prince-Bythewood shot the scene largely in medium close-ups and her characters stay fully clothed. “There’s no nudity in it! I went back twice and it kept giving me an R.”
“And then a Beyoncé video came out,” she recalls, smiling. (We’re talking the “Partition” era here.) “Somebody in the MPAA saw that and they were like, well, if this is on TV, then we should let this go. I still can’t believe it. So thank you, Beyoncé!”
After Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood worked together on Shots Fired, a ripped-from-the-headlines Fox drama developed in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the police shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. It dealt with police corruption, racism, and the neglect with which Black deaths are often met by authorities. Co-starring Love & Basketball’s Sanaa Lathan as a Department of Justice investigator, Shots Fired was like a beacon in a sea of network TV police dramas that mostly skirted those issues—or worse, glorified off-the-book cop behavior that, in real life, results in gross abuses of power.
“A lot of police dramas throughout the years have been detrimental to us as a people, have absolutely weaponized our Blackness, have absolutely made heroes out of cops who go rogue and who skirt the rules and often kill people or beat people up to get information or solve the crime,” Prince-Bythewood says. “Hollywood absolutely has been complicit.”
But amid a national wave of protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and dozens more Black victims of police brutality, Prince-Bythewood has sensed a shift. White creators she’s spoken with, she says, “see the difference now. And I don’t know why now, but people in the industry have called and reached out and literally are like, ‘I’m listening, please, tell me.’ I don’t get offended by those calls. They keep saying, ‘I’m so embarrassed to do this.’ No, I’m glad that you are asking.”
“The beautiful thing is they’re not defensive for the first time when you call them out on things that they’ve put out in the world, or the fact that I can walk into your business and not see one single person of color in the entire office. The fact that they’re recognizing and making concrete changes to rectify that says a lot,” she says. “So I guarantee you there’s not going to be any new police dramas coming out that glorify bad behavior.”
The director’s sights will next turn to The Woman King—but, she says, there’s another, more “personal” story in her she’s been dying to tell for over six years. She just hasn’t had time to write and may not until her next project is done.
It’s a bittersweet problem to have. Prince-Bythewood has spent her career working up to a place where opportunities come to her. “And I’m happy to be at that place, but I also really want to write this next thing so... I don’t know,” she says. It’ll take a fight to make both happen, on her own terms, in her own time. But if anyone is up to it, it’s her.