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Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings black love to the screen

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings black love to the screen
Director and writer Gina Prince-Bythewood.

“My focus is putting people of color on screen to fall in love and telling universal stories,” Gina Prince-Bythewood says.

Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed the feature Beyond The Lights (out in theaters now), told the Banner recently that the inspiration for the movie started as a desire to do a love story and a music film. Music is her creative process, she says, and the idea for the film started when she attended an Alicia Keys concert and heard Keys perform the song Diary.

It was there, Prince-Bythewood recalls, that the character and the story came into her head.

“It’s rare that something like that appears in my head,” she said. “It was a great moment for me as a writer, and putting some personal things in there as well as the suicide and the mother-daughter relationship.”

But, making Beyond The Lights wasn’t an easy sell for the director. It took four years for the movie to be made, and along the way Bythewood met with many studio executives who suggested non-black actors for the film. In a HuffPost Live interview this past September, Prince-Bythewood talked about how it was suggested to her that she should cast Channing Tatum in the role of Kaz (which went to Nate Parker), or going so far as not even casting a black actress in the lead.

Hearing suggestions like these was disheartening, but she’s been able to stay focused on the work and remain true to her voice.

“I’m a writer and director and I’m seeing the film in my head and the vision is so clear to me,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I’m writing for a reason and I’m casting for a reason. If I get a ‘no’ it’s the reflection of the person saying it, not me. I only need one yes and that keeps me going. It’s what I wanted to put in the world.”

The Los Angeles native’s directing career has included helming both television episodes and films that tell stories about universal themes of love, family, and friendship. From 2003 to 2005, she directed episodes of Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, and The Bernie Mac Show. In 2008, Prince-Bythewood wrote the screenplay for The Secret Life of Bees and directed the film, based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It starred Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys as the Boatwright sisters who take in a young teenager by the name of Lily (Dakota Fanning) and her caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) in 1964 South Carolina.

Prince-Bythewood made her directorial feature film debut with the 2000 romance, Love & Basketball, which starred Sanaa Lathan (The Best Man Holiday) and Omar Epps (ABC’s Resurrection), about two childhood friends who dream of becoming professional basketball players and end up falling in love on and off the court. That same year, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit Award in the category of Best First Feature.

“Both of those things were phenomenal moments,” Prince-Bythewood said. “It was a beautiful thing. It was such a passion project on paper. I believed in the story and wrote it. It really fueled the rest of my career personally. I know that I will always do projects I’m passionate about and I want to put my voice into the world.”

Prince-Bythewood followed up Love & Basketball with directing the HBO movie Disappearing Acts adapted from Terry McMillan’s New York Times best-selling novel of the same name. The television feature showed us a contemporary love story in which Franklin and Zora, (played by Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan), meet and fall in love after crossing paths when Zora moves from Manhattan to a brownstone in Brooklyn.

Prince-Bythewood got her start as a director when she attended the UCLA Film School. While there, she received the Gene Reynolds Scholarship for Directing, and after graduating in 1991, she was hired as a writer for the television series A Different World. A year later, she followed that up with writing gigs for the television shows Felicity and South Central before making the leap to directing professionally.

Her television directing debut came in 1995 with the CBS Schoolbreak special What About Your Friends, which featured three girlfriends in their senior year of high school preparing for college. With the special, Gina won her first NAACP Image Award for Best Children’s Special and earned two Emmy nominations for writing and directing.

Since writing and directing Love & Basketball 14 years ago, Gina has learned several things about herself as a director.

“Looking back at my work, Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and now this [Beyond The Lights], is to tell a story of women finding their self-worth,” she said. “I know how hard it was for me being adopted by white parents and not seeing anyone looking like me. Self-worth and struggling to find out who I am is what I’m starting to say.”

And when asked what she hopes the audience will take away from the contemporary love story in Beyond The Lights, Prince-Bythewood simply says, “I want people to leave my films inspired, finding your own voice and choosing life.”