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Black Women’s Stories Are the Hardest to Get Made: The Gina Prince-Bythewood Interview

20 years after her debut, "Love & Basketball," the writer-director is still asked to cast characters as white, not black.

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Michael Buckner/Deadline/Shutterstock

It’s been 20 years since New Line Cinema released Gina Prince-Bythewood’s feature directorial debut, “Love & Basketball,” and the writer-director said that film — now a classic, especially among African American audiences — allowed her a kind of freedom she hasn’t seen since.

Produced by Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and Mule Filmworks, the film starred Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as Quincy McCall and Monica Wright, childhood friends who fall in love as adults and share another all-consuming passion: basketball. Told largely from Monica’s perspective, this career-versus-love story continues to resonate.

“I have never had the kind of freedom I had on ‘Love and Basketball,'” she said in a candid and long-ranging interview with IndieWire. Since then, she’s made just three films, including HBO’s Terry McMillan adaptation “Disappearing Acts” (2000);  “The Secret Life of Bees” (2008) for Fox Searchlight; and Relativity Media’s “Beyond the Lights” (2014), starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker.

She’s just wrapped post production on her fourth film, “The Old Guard,” Netflix’s big-budget adaptation of the Image Comic about immortal mercenary soldiers that stars Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and KiKi Layne. And from here, she said, her stories will only get bigger. “I want to do another love story,” she said, “but now I’ve proved myself in this big-budget action space, so that no one can wonder, ‘Can she do it?'”

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Did you get to make exactly the film that you wanted to make, especially as a first feature?

Absolutely. I’m on my fifth movie now, and I have never had the kind of freedom I had on “Love and Basketball,” which is weird. You’d think it would get easier as you do more work. I’ve been craving that kind of freedom ever since. The only change I made, that I wish I hadn’t made, was that I cut a scene at the end of the film between Tyra Banks’ character and Omar’s [Epps] character. They were in this apartment on Venice Beach, and he was trying to talk to her about quitting the NBA and going back to school, and she did not want to hear it. She wanted to be an NBA wife. And I wish that was still in there, so that at the end when he chooses Sanaa [Lathan] over Tyra’s character, there’s zero question why that happened.

I watched it yesterday for the first time in many years, and I forgot all the folks that were in it. Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, Monica Calhoun, and Boris Kodjoe. You pretty much had most of young black Hollywood at the time, in the film. You broke a number of them.

That was Gabrielle’s first film. It was Sanaa’s first lead role. Regina Hall. I always laugh about this, because I saw [Malcolm Lee’s 1999 film] “The Best Man,” and I was like, “Wow, that woman is really good, but I can’t believe Malcolm found a stripper who could act.” So I ended up casting her, which is great. It turned out that Sanaa and Regina were friends, so that fueled their sister relationship on screen. Boris Kodjoe, that was his first film. So the only two stars in the film, at that time, were Omar and Alfre [Woodard], and they really anchored it. They allowed me to cast an unknown, so to speak, in Sanaa. That was the deal that Mike De Luca [then president of production at New Line Cinema] gave me. He said, “If you get Omar, then you can cast an unknown for Monica.” And thankfully, Omar was my first choice for Quincy, so there was zero compromise there. Alfre had been my first choice as well. But it was a really cool group of people. Everybody was just hungry, and were in it because they dug the script.

Did the floodgates open up after that for you? Was every studio head calling you to make your next film?

Come on now, Tambay, you know what the deal was. Really? You know how it has worked historically for us.

I just want to hear you say it.

I’ll just say this, “Love and Basketball” came out in 2000, and my next film was “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2008, so that should tell you something. There were two projects that I had developed that didn’t happen during that eight-year gap, so it wasn’t as if I was just sitting around. But I was not getting a bunch of scripts, the way I am now. It is tough, because it was a success at the theaters. And when it came out on video, it did really well. People always ask, “Do you feel discriminated against as a black filmmaker?” And given the projects that I’m offered today, I don’t feel that. But what has always been discriminated against are my choices, and that is to focus on black women’s stories. Those are the hardest movies to get made. Those continue to be my biggest fights.

The music in “Love and Basketball” — I remember Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Full of Me,” Maxwell’s “Woman’s Work,” some MC Lyte tracks, and other popular music of the time. How did you get all that music?

When I went into that first meeting with Mike De Luca, he said, “How much money do you need for this film?” And I didn’t know. I’d never done a film before, but I said $10 million. And he said I would need more. That never, ever, ever happens now, that a studio volunteers to give you more money than you asked for. So our budget was $14 million, which was not a ton, but for a film about a black girl, that felt good to me. It was fun to put together the soundtrack, because I had all my mixtape cassettes from college, and that’s where a lot of the songs came from. But with Meshell, that was just absolute luck, because we were at the end of editing, heading toward the mix, and I did not have a song for that really crucial scene where Monica tells Quincy that she’ll play him for his heart. And then her album “Bitter” came out. And we laid that song up against that final scene. Usually, you have to cut a song to make it fit, but we didn’t have to do that at all. It seemed like it had been written for the scene. The most expensive song was Maxwell’s “Woman’s Work.” We weren’t allowed to have it on the actual soundtrack. And I was afraid that the studio and Mike De Luca was going to say that it’s too much money to spend on a single song that you can’t have on the soundtrack. But all props to him, because he saw how important it was to me. He gave in and said, “We’ll pay for it.”

Why do you think he was so generous? 

When I went in for our first meeting, the first thing he said was, “This is the best love story I’ve ever read.” And that was deep to me. He didn’t say, “This is the best black love story I’ve ever read.” That was so different from every other studio head: The fact that he saw it as a love story first was everything. I wish there were more studio heads like him. It may have been because Spike [Lee] was producing, and he felt that if I screwed up, Spike could swoop in and save me. But thankfully, that didn’t need to happen. And they loved the dailies. And they let me alone.

Why do you think the film has such staying power? I think if you ask any black person, “Love & Basketball” is in their top 10 list of all-time favorite films. 

Whatever it is, I wish I could bottle it and put it into every film that I make. I wanted to write a very personal story, but I didn’t think anybody would care. I actually put it aside, and started writing a romantic comedy, because I felt that would sell [but] I kept getting stuck, and finally decided to go back to that personal story. It was a year and a half of, “Is anybody going to care about this story, and about this character?” All praise to my husband, Reggie Rock, who continued to push me, and continued to give me great notes on the script, and not let me go out with it until it was ready. When we did go out with it, every single studio turned it down. It was a year and a half of my life. I had quit TV to write this thing. And it just so happened that Sundance heard about the script, and that just changed everything. But the only thing I could think of in terms of why it continues to resonate is there’s so much truth in the story and in the characters. It’s not just a love story, but a story about overcoming and finding yourself, and believing in yourself. All of that is fueled by the truth I shared of my life and my husband’s life, and maybe people can feel that.

Are we going to get a sequel?

Hell, no. No. No. No! Obviously, it’s incredibly flattering that people ask me that often, for either a sequel or a television show. Look, I wrote the story that I wanted to tell, and I said everything there. And I feel like anything I would come up with will not be as good as what people have in their heads. Anything that I come up with would lessen or cheapen what the film has become.

So, a studio head comes to you and says, “Gina, here is $25 million, we want another ‘Love & Basketball’.” You’ll say no?

They have approached me, and I’ve said no.

Oh, they have? Wow.

Oh, yeah. Numerous times. But no. And I’m glad I’m in a position to say no. Come to me in 20 years, when I’m destitute and maybe I’ll do it. No, but seriously, I’ll never change my mind.

So, five movies in 20 years doesn’t quite seem like a lot. You’ve done some TV, obviously, too. But I was looking at your IMDb page, and there are these gaps of six, seven, eight years. And I wondered, what was she doing during those periods?

It’s a couple of answers. First, I only do films that I’m absolutely passionate about. To be away from my two boys, my husband, there has to be a really good reason. And it takes me a long time to write. “Love and Basketball” took a year and a half. “Beyond the Lights” took two years to write. And then it takes a while to get each project set up. And sprinkled within each project are a couple really great projects that I just wasn’t able to get going, like “Silver and Black,” that was a year and a half of my life. Or, “I Know This Much Is True.” That was two years of my life. And being a mom. You can’t just take off every other year to work on a project.

I hope you got paid for the time that you spent on them.

Yeah, you get paid for the script. That is one thing though, I certainly want to change with the Director’s Guild: You can work as a director on a project for a very long time, but you don’t start getting paid until it’s in pre-production. And that’s got to change — you’re putting months, sometimes years into something, as a director, and you should be getting paid for that time.

Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?

“Love & Basketball” set the tone for my career. I think the first thing you come out with is so important, because it says a lot about who you are. And it taught me so much about this industry. A lot of “nos” before I got that one “yes.” Having that memory has given me stamina in this industry, and that’s absolutely what you need. Every single movie I have done since “Love & Basketball,” whoever has hired me, has referenced that film as one of the reasons. I love all my films, but that’s my fave.

Are you where you expected to be at this stage in your career? 

I’m feeling very good. I always wanted to be in this space, and having “The Old Guard,” this big beautiful action film starring two women, that has something really neat to say, and kind of disrupting the genre in that way,  I’m so excited about that. To be able to play in that space, with that amount of money, once you get a taste of that, it’s going to be really hard to go back. But there’s great pride in doing “Beyond the Lights” for $7 million, and then be able to do “The Old Guard” for 10 times that, which will screen in different countries. I want to continue to bounce between genres. I want to do another love story, but now I’ve proved myself in this big-budget action space, so that no one can wonder, “Can she do it?” I feel good about what I’m going to do next. I can’t wait until I’m able to talk about that. I’m in a space where it is easier to tell the types of stories that I’ve been fighting to tell for my entire career. That’s a beautiful thing. Yes, I’m competitive, but it’s for myself. I want to make sure I’m always reaching for greatness. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m never going to stop reaching for it. Because when we have success, and when we get the opportunities, and are successful in that opportunity, that helps all of us.

You teased that you already have the next project lined up. Let me ask one question: Is it bigger than “The Old Guard?”

Yeah.

Wow. So it’s going to be the biggest thing you’ve ever done.

Yeah. I love to say that doing “The Old Guard” put me into position to be able to do this. And I can’t wait until I can talk about it publicly.

So the struggle is easier then, at least little bit.

Yes, the struggle will never be gone, but maybe that’s okay, because I don’t mind the fight. Some of the fights I hate, especially those where I’m asked to cast a character as white instead of black, and I have to push back. But fighting to put black people up on screen in ways that we deserve, I’m always up for that fight. And as I said, that fight has not been as hard in this past year.

It’s mind-blowing to me that this is still happening.

Imagine sitting in the room, though, face-to-face with somebody saying that to your face. And not realizing how offensive and soul crushing it is to hear that. And to hear it in this day and age, it’s just mind boggling.

Do you get tired of talking about race and gender in Hollywood? As a black writer, I’m over that conversation, but I’m sure you get asked that all the time.

I think it’s more maddening that we have to still talk about it. The fact that in 2020 I’ve just done a comic-book film. I’m the first black female to do that. The fact that we’re still having “firsts.” The fact that we can say that there’s been this bit of a “renaissance,” in terms of the number of films with black characters in them. It’s so hard not to get disillusioned or bitter, because you know that there’s so many other dope filmmakers out there that are just not getting the opportunity. So I’ve gotten through the door, and I see it as my responsibility to hold it open and pull others in.

I take it that you’re not buying into this idea of a renaissance for black content creators.

There are more of us getting the opportunities. And the diversity of content is what I’m most excited about. But when you look at Hollywood as a whole, and look at the numbers, that’s when you realize, “Damn, we still have so far to go for equity.” So there is no equity right now, but more filmmakers are starting to get the opportunities. And then it’s on us that when you get the opportunity, we have to be all in, and do great work, so that the renaissance can evolve to the point where we’re no longer talking about a renaissance.

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