As a graduate of the UCLA Film School, award-winning writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood might seem to have taken a traditional path in her filmmaking career, but it wasn’t always so straightforward. Her first film “Love and Basketball” premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and also won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Prince-Bythewood also directed HBO Films “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees” which was adapted from Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel and released by Fox Searchlight. Her latest feature film “Beyond the Lights,” now out on VOD, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker and Minnie Driver.
In a conversation hosted by social media celebrity and writer Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis at the SXSW Film Festival this week, filmmaker Prince-Bythewood revealed the personal and professional experiences that shaped her career in the hope of inspiring others to overcome their own challenges. Her insight into the power of music and the making of “Beyond the Lights” included sage advice for filmmakers as she told stories never before shared.
Below are the highlights:
Think about what message you want to put out into the world.
When asked what inspired her to create “Beyond the Lights,” Prince-Bythewood credited Mark Rydell’s “The Rose,” starring Bette Midler, as one of the “great music films that transcends the genre” and said she wanted to emulate it with hip-hop and R & B. But she was concerned about the hypermasculinity and negativity in R&B. “R&B music used to be about loving one woman and putting a woman on a pedestal. Now it’s about how many women you can have,” she said.
She said she struggled with the risqué choreography of the hypersexual music video for “Masterpiece,” which was a pivotal plot device in “Beyond The Lights,” having to decide “do I want to put it in the world?” and then Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” came out. Prince-Bythewood realized that she had to “step up and compete with what was out there to make the point. It was tough as a woman to do that.”
Never put anyone on a pedestal.
The film “Purple Rain” was the first R-rated movie that Prince-Bythewood saw as a teen, and was a major influence on her writing process. Musical icon Prince had become acquainted with “Beyond The Lights” lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw after her portrayal of Dido Elizabeth Belle in “Belle” last year, and he accepted an invitation to a private screening of “Beyond the Lights” before even Mbatha-Raw had viewed the final cut.
Prince-Bythewood related how she told Prince how much “Purple Rain” and his music meant to her and how it inspired part of “Beyond The Lights.” Her voice noticeably shook as she recounted telling Prince that she “could not wait for him to see this film that spoke so much to who I am as an artist.”
However, Prince left the screening within the first ten minutes, as he was reportedly offended by the “Masterpiece” video. “The music video had to go that far… The whole point of the film is obviously this woman trying to shed this hypersexual image.”
Prince told Mbatha-Raw that “she was going to hate it” and assumed her reaction would be to tell Prince-Bythewood to change the music video. Prince-Bythewood said that when Mbatha-Raw saw the film, she was offended that Prince walked out because “he did not stay long enough to get the message of the film.”
Black film is not a genre.
“I think it goes back to me seeing ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and just wanting to put love up on the screen with people that look like me. I want to put characters up there where we can show our humanity, not to just us as a community but the world because there’s such a negative perception of us in the world because of TV and media. We don’t see each other loving each other, and fighting for each other and that’s absolutely what I want to put into the world,” she said.
She hopes that “Beyond the Lights” transcends color-lines. “I can go to see the movies and see ‘The Notebook,’ I’m looking at Ryan and Rachel. I’m not looking at white characters…Anybody can go in and just fall in love with Noni and Kaz [the lead characters of ‘Beyond the Lights”], and not see color.”
Studios need to stop pigeon-holing “black films.” “The issue is really with the studios,” said Prince-Blythewood. “The second that there are two black characters in the lead, it becomes a black film. For me, black film is not a genre – sci-fi is a genre, love story is a genre. Black film is just a way to put a film in a box and mark it the same way they do everything else.”
She added, “You should be able to cast anybody, who has the best chemistry…My fight honestly is just to make universal stories with people of color that everyone can relate to.”
In college, Prince-Bythewood played basketball and was recruited, but not by UCLA where she wanted to go to film school. When she later ran track at UCLA, she applied in her junior year to film school but was rejected. Asking herself, “What can I do about this?” Prince-Bythewood went to the counselor of the film school to appeal the decision but was told it was not possible. She then wrote a letter to the head of the film school, telling the administrator why she had made a mistake in not approving Prince-Bythewood’s admission, and received a phone call two days later telling her that she was in.
After film school, Prince-Bythewood applied for a writer’s apprentice position for “A Different World” but “totally blew the interview” as she was unprepared. “I thought that I was meeting one person, and it was every producer – it was all these people that I respected, Debbie Allen, Susan Fales-Hill, and Yvette Lee Bowser – it was the entire writing staff and all the producers,” she recalled.
Prince-Bythewood’s reaction was “very introverted, I was unprepared and giving monosyllabic answers – I did not get the job.” However, she called Fales-Hill every day, and her persistence paid off when a month later she was offered the opportunity to replace the person who had been hired instead.
Only work on projects you believe in.
After five years of television writing, Prince-Bythewood quit to write something to direct. She had the the idea for a romantic comedy that would sell and be “the best way to break in,” but struggled to write. She had a personal story about a young girl who wanted to be the first female in the NBA MBAA, “but I didn’t think anyone would care. I kept putting that down and pushing it out of my mind, and trying to write this B.S. that I didn’t really care about, but I thought was going to sell.”
“I was stuck, and my agents called me and said that there was an opportunity to do a rewrite of a film that’s been shot that needed to be fixed,” she remembered. But she had second thoughts after watching the film, which she said was “awful and offensive.” Her agent told her to “get your foot in the door, it’s all that matters and then you can do the work that you care about.” She put away her personal feelings and came up with notes to fix the film.
Prince-Bythewood fulfilled her commitment to a production meeting where she shared her ideas. She stated that they could “have everything for free but I can’t be a part of it.” She attributes that experience to being the turning point that sent her back to writing the personal story of “Love and Basketball.”
Feminism isn’t a bad word.
As an adopted child of white parents in Pacific Grove, California, Prince-Bythewood noticed at an early that “no one around me looked like me” and she witnessed a lot of racism. Her parents were very supportive, but Prince-Bythewood said that they did not know how “to teach me how to fight against that” which contributed to her low self-esteem and depression in high school. Her outlook changed when at the age of 17, when Prince-Bythewood saw the trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“The overwhelming feeling to look up on the screen and see people who looked like me, it just changed everything. I just realized the power that film has, so for me being someone who struggled so much with that, and having to find myself is absolutely something that I put into my work. My hope is that others who may be struggling with that can look up on the screen as well and hopefully be inspired or aspire to the characters in how they find themselves.”
In terms of feminism, Prince-Bythewood said, “I have no problems with the word at all but I find it very interesting. My characters for the most part have it all — the career and family. For me, that’s not feminism, that’s just how it should be. To say that women should have equal pay shouldn’t make you a feminist — it should just make you normal.”