From Love and Basketball to the The Secret Life of Bees, Gina Prince-Bythewood has poured her soul into her projects.
Hip-hop and R&B play a strong influence in Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, Beyond the Lights, a drama about the pressures of fame and the toll it takes on the world’s latest superstar, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), until she falls for a member of her security detail (Nate Parker) and realizes there’s more to life than her career. Gina took time out from her busy schedule to chat with RT about her Five Favorite Films. Check them out below.
Holly Hunter’s performance. Her character spoke to me both personally and professionally. I saw myself in that character. It was hysterically funny, but also I love the kind of movies that make me laugh and cry and feel and it had everything. It’s almost a perfect movie.
The chemistry between Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney was insane. Anytime that movie comes on cable, I can’t not watch it and it’s really because of their chemistry and the movie’s just fun. Don Cheadle is great in it. I love the story of it. I love the way Soderbergh shot it and I love the love story aspect of it.
Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998; 94% Tomatometer)
I saw that film and I don’t like to cry in movies — I don’t think anybody does — just because it’s embarrassing, but I was sobbing in that film. It was such a beautiful story. It was this little film that spoke volumes and emotions were just so real and it just moved me. And honestly, I saw it at a time where I’d grown up loving movies and there was a period where suddenly it seemed like everything coming out was the same and I started getting annoyed and then I saw Central Station and Life is Beautiful within months (of each other) and it restored my faith in film-making.
I loved that film. It tells me so much as a director. I studied it so much in terms of the camera and how you use the camera to tell the story. The performances were great, but it was really the technical aspect of it that is so fascinating to me. What Scorsese was able to do with the camera to tell the story and speak to characters and give every character an entrance. It’s another film that’s almost perfect.
A documentary that doesn’t feel like a documentary. It feels like a movie, a movie that I get lost in every time I see it. What’s amazing is if you had scripted it the way it happened people wouldn’t buy it and wouldn’t believe it. But the fact it happened that way in real life, it was mesmerizing and those two boys they were real and you rooted for them and you felt for them and you went through every emotion with them. It was so beautifully done and changed the game in terms of documentaries in making them more commercial and giving them a bigger platform than they had prior.
Beyond the Lights is definitely a passion project for you; you got the inspiration for the story when you attended an Alicia Keys concert. Is that what drove you to using music so much for the movie?
It’s definitely a passion project and I love music and I write some music, so it kind of makes sense that as a writer the story came into my head when I was at that concert. It doesn’t always happen like that for me as a writer when the story just comes but it was so specific and this character was so specific of a woman struggling to find her self-worth within an industry that takes pride almost in tearing that
down. It just felt like it was right to explore and hip-hop/R&B is such a complicated world right now and hasn’t been explored and putting a love story within that as well was fun for me as a writer. And I thought, honestly, it would be an easy sell, given that it was the music scene with a love story, and I was shocked that every studio turned it down — twice — but I believed in it and believed in Gugu ( Mbatha-Raw ) when I found her to play Noni.
What hip-hop and R&B influences did you have growing up?
What is funny is that I was adopted by white parents and grew up in Pacific Grove, California, which had maybe six black people in the entire town. So, I grew up on Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and The Cure and The Who, and it wasn’t until I heard New Edition when I was in high school that it was suddenly like, “Wait, this is what I’m feeling.” I respect the music I grew up on — it definitely moves me, and Peter Gabriel is an artist that I love still today — but when I heard that New Edition tape and then I just played that tape, wore it out, and I just connected with it. Once I got to college it was all hip-hop and R&B for me and it’s the music that I connect to and feel, but for the last couple years it’s really been moving into a dangerous, angry place that’s been trickling down into everyday culture. It scares me because I have two young boys, so I’m making this film in hopes that we can change the conversation.
Hip-hop and R&B in the 1980s and 1990s was so different than how it is now. It’s interesting how it’s evolved.
It was fun and it was about the voice. It’s strange because R&B used to be about loving your woman, and now its about hating women. You know, that doesn’t make sense.
Beyond the Lights is in theaters now.
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