(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)
Certified Fresh romance Love & Basketball was the breakout hit for director Gina Prince-Bythewood. It has become a hallmark of Black cinema, and impacted the industry by blending romance and sports in a new way. Since then, she has worked on projects in other genres because she refuses to be pigeonholed – both in TV and film. (Though she did return to romance, triumphantly, in the acclaimed drama Beyond the Lights.)
Her latest film, the big-budget adaptation of Greg Rucka’s graphic novel, The Old Guard, was perhaps her biggest departure yet. Starring Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and more, the action flick hit Netflix last year after a planned theatrical release was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Action is a genre that few women get the opportunity to tackle, and there are even fewer Black women at the helm of big-budget action features. Prince-Bythewood may have pushed the door open a little further: The Old Guard was a huge success for the streaming service, with 72 million views in the first month of release and talk of a sequel. She is following it up with The Woman King, starring Viola Davis as General Nanisca of Dahomey, who leads all-female unit known as the Dahomey Amazons who fought back against the French in the 19th century.
As part of our “Filmmaker Selects” series for Women’s History Month, Prince-Bythewood shared 10 films from creatives that inspired her, and spoke with Top Critic Valerie Complex about what makes her tick, her favorite directors, and what the future is looking like for women filmmakers.
Valerie Complex for Rotten Tomatoes: Do you miss the movie theater?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Yes! I love the collective theater experience of sitting with a group of people I don’t know, yet we all laugh/cry at the same thing. I love sitting in the theater when those opening credits come up. Especially when it’s a movie that I’ve done and it’s an exciting moment we all have to miss right now.
What was the first film that made you really want to become a director?
Prince-Bythewood: It’s interesting because I didn’t have that epiphany watching a movie. I had that epiphany that I was a director working on a movie. I was working on a student film at UCLA. I was on set and looked around then it hit me in that moment: you’re a director. From then on, I worked on improving the craft and watching great films, which is the benefit of film school. You get to see so many movies that you normally wouldn’t be able to. As time moved forward, I became more and more enamored with the craft and the power of filmmaking.
Being on set, what were some of the challenges you remember having when shooting your first feature Love & Basketball?
Prince-Bythewood: While in school, you’re given room to fail, but for Love & Basketball, that was my first shot. I worked on the script for so long and fought hard to make it. I was in a constant state of anxiety that I couldn’t fail. It was the fear of: If I blow this, I’ll blow my entire career. Working on the film, the crew developed a sense of family, and everyone there wanted me to win, which helped fuel me to see it through to the end.
When you talk about that collective anxiety about failure, where does that stem from for you? Is it like a collective thing of being a woman, and being a woman of color? Was it being new in the industry? All of the above?
Prince-Bythewood: It’s history. Women, Black folks, and people of color don’t have the luxury of failure in this industry. It is very hard to get a second film, and a third film. Suddenly, you look around and you don’t see anybody that looks like you – and I learned this pretty early on in my career.
Are there any particular women filmmakers that you admire?
Prince-Bythewood: Well, there is Kathryn Bigelow, and Euzhan Palcy – she is someone who looks like me, and is working with people like Marlon Brando. Then there is Kasi Lemmons who directed Eve’s Bayou. It’s a film I respect immensely and was so different from anything that had come out before it. When Eve’s Bayou came out, it was on such another level. The craft, the storytelling, the performances inspired me. The two sisters and their story, the performance that she got from Journee Smollett and Meagan Good, that movie stayed with me. I thought it was such an incredible debut from Kasi. I’ll never forget when I met Kasi before directing Love & Basketball, and she was so giving of her time, support, and encouragement.
What new filmmakers are you into right now?
Prince-Bythewood: There are also some dope young women out there. I get excited, not only by their work and their talent, but the fight. I know what it takes to get a film made, and for them to have the grit to get it done is impressive. There is Dee Rees, her film Pariah blew me away. I loved Tina Mabry’s film Mississippi Damned; Little Woods by Nia DaCosta, and looking forward to her next film Candyman; and Channing Godfrey Peoples, who impressed me with Miss Juneteenth.
Miss Juneteenth is such a great film.
Prince-Bythewood: The movie took me into a world that I had no idea existed. There are a couple of scenes in there that are devastating to watch in the best way. Peoples did phenomenal world-building, which brought me into this small Texas community and taught me something. I cared about Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) and her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). She wants a better life for them both, and will do what it takes to change her circumstance. I just think Peoples created something special.
I hear you really enjoyed Mati Diop’s first feature film, Atlantics, as well. I saw that one at Cannes in 2019.
Prince-Bythewood: There was a lot of buzz about it, and I finally got a screener to watch it. I’m glad I didn’t know much about the film because it was exciting to experience that way. It’s a quiet, beautiful movie, and I was just so invested in the love story. It’s beautiful, surprising, and heartbreaking.
Prince-Bythewood: Blank created something with all the elements: There’s drama, comedy, and an honest depiction of one woman’s life who works in the creative arts. She has a fresh voice and clear vision that’s dope, dynamic, and bold. And shooting in black-and-white? A brilliant touch. I also loved the music and how it helps tell the story. It’s the best kind of humor because it comes from a place of truth.
Your portfolio is super diversified. Like you got action, drama, romance. Do you like to do it all? Do you want to experiment with horror next? What’s coming?
Prince-Bythewood: I love every genre except for horror and westerns. I can’t even tell you why. That’s not to say I can’t recognize a great western or horror film, but it’s not my thing. Personally, I crave to do another love story. That is my favorite genre. However, I certainly want to see women, particularly Black women, creating in every genre. The next thing I am working on is The Woman King with Viola Davis. It’s a historical epic. I’m so hyped about the project because it’s a beautiful story, and we don’t often get epics of this caliber with women at the forefront.
Do you think, since you directed Love & Basketball, that the industry has changed for women filmmakers?
Prince-Bythewood: It’s interesting you asked that, because I came across an interview I did 21 years ago during the press tour for Love & Basketball, and I talked about my hopes for the future, and the fact that we’re still having those conversations 21 years later is wild to me. When I shot The Old Guard I thought to myself that few women get the opportunity to do big tent-pole and action films. When I was in film school we had Kathryn Bigelow. She was the only woman I knew doing big-budget movies.
This past year, seven of us – and the majority of us, women of color – got the opportunity to do the high title films. However, you can’t get too excited though because you see the actual numbers and it’s like, “Oh my God, how is this still happening? How are we at 12% of anything?!” But it’s important to remember there are so many great films by a fantastic group of women that are in the awards conversation this year and it’s long overdue.
What do you hope to see for the future for not just women directors, but for Black women specifically? Paint a picture of how that would work if you had it your way.
Prince-Bythewood: More Black women in the director’s chair. I had this conversation with Regina King for another publication and we talked about that, what we bring as Black women to our storytelling. Hollywood needs to understand that we all bring something different, that we are not a monolith. We don’t all share the same experiences, so we need women who are bringing different things, in different genres to the table. My life experiences are what’s important to me and a large part of my work. Things are wide open, and there are so many stories and different perspectives to share. I want all of these women to have the opportunity to tell a story that no one else can tell.
Whale Rider (2002)
Only males are allowed to ascend to chiefdom in a Maori tribe in New Zealand. This ancient custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at birth; however his twin sister, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), survives. At age 12, she enlists the help of her grandmother (Vicky Haughton) and the training of her uncle (Grant Roa) to claim her birthright.
Critics Consensus: An empowering and uplifting movie, with a wonderful performance by Castle-Hughes.
Written and directed by Niki Caro
Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), travel across state lines to New York City on a fraught journey of friendship, bravery and compassion.
Critics Consensus: Powerfully acted and directed, Never Rarely Sometimes Always reaffirms writer-director Eliza Hittman as a filmmaker of uncommon sensitivity and grace.
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman
Eve's Bayou (1997)
Over the course of a long, hot Louisiana summer, a 10-year-old black girl, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), discovers that her family’s affluent existence is merely a facade. The philandering of her suave doctor father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), creates a rift, throwing Eve’s mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), and teenage sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), into emotional turmoil. Eve, though, manages to find some solace with her quirky psychic aunt, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan).
Critics Consensus: Eve’s Bayou marks a striking feature debut for director Kasi Lemmons, layering terrific performances and Southern mysticism into a measured meditation on disillusionment and forgiveness.
Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons
In Dakar, a group of construction workers abandon their work on a sky-scraper in response to months of withheld wages. The group then seeks better opportunities as they take to the sea. At the heart of the narrative are lovers Suleiman (traore) and Ada (Mama Sane) who must contend with Ada’s betrothal to another man.
Critics Consensus: An unpredictable supernatural drama rooted in real-world social commentary, Atlantique suggests a thrillingly bright future for debuting filmmaker Mati Diop.
Directed by Mati Diop, written by Mati Diop and Olivier Demangel
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until an unexpected friendship with a thoughtful teen (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.
Critics Consensus: The Edge of Seventeen‘s sharp script — and Hailee Steinfeld’s outstanding lead performance — make this more than just another coming-of-age dramedy.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Meek housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) joins her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), an independent waitress, on a short fishing trip. However, their trip becomes a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a bar. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, and Thelma joins her. On the way, Thelma falls for sexy young thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and the sympathetic Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed.
Critics Consensus: Simultaneously funny, heartbreaking, and peppered with action, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise is a potent, well-acted road movie that transcends the feminist message at its core.
Broadcast News (1987)
A highly strung news producer finds herself strangely attracted to a vapid anchorman even through she loathes everything he personifies. To make matters worse, her best friend, a talented but not particularly telegenic news reporter, is secretly in love with her.
Critics Consensus: Blockbuster dramatist James L. Brooks delivers with Broadcast News, fully entertaining with deft, deep characterization.
Written and directed by James L. Brooks
Miss Juneteenth (2020)
A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant.
Critics Consensus: Like a pageant winner walking across the stage, Miss Juneteenth follows a familiar path — but does so with charm and grace.
Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
A struggling New York City playwright finds inspiration by reinventing herself as a rapper in this debut from Radha Blank, which she wrote, directed, and stars in.
Critics Consensus: The Forty-Year-Old Version opens a compelling window into the ebbs and flows of the artist’s life — and announces writer-director-star Radha Blank as a major filmmaking talent with her feature debut.
Written and directed by Radha Blank
Nothing comes easy for Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez), a troubled girl on the brink of womanhood. Her teachers don’t understand her, her father underestimates her and her friends are few. Diana struggles to find respect and dignity every day. Diana is a quick tempered young woman who finds discipline, self-respect and love in the most unlikely place — a boxing ring.
Critics Consensus: Michelle Rodriguez gives a compelling performance, despite lack of a boxing background; Karyn Kusama packs a punch with this directorial debut.
Written and directed by Karyn Kusama
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