This story about Gina Prince-Bythewood first appeared in the College Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
On a warm October afternoon in Westwood, Gina Prince-Bythewood walked between buildings on the UCLA campus and grinned. “It looks like nothing’s changed,” she said as she took a shortcut from the School of Theater, Film and Television’s Melnitz Hall to the nearby Freud Playhouse. “Even the paint looks the same.” She laughed. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
Of course, Prince-Bythewood is an unabashed booster of UCLA’s TFT, from which she graduated in 1991. And paint color notwithstanding, there have definitely been changes since she spent time in these halls: For instance, the James Bridges Theater, where many of her student films screened, had yet to be updated and upgraded when she was here, and the framed posters that lined the lobby definitely didn’t include her own film debut, 2000’s “Love & Basketball,” which now hangs alongside posters from fellow grads like Francis Ford Coppola and Alexander Payne.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula in Northern California, Prince-Bythewood is a writer-director who started in TV but has now made six feature films: “Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights,” “The Old Guard” and the new epic “The Woman King,” an action-packed period drama starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch as the real-life female Agojie warriors of the 19th century West African kingdom of Dahomey.
Her current film, an exhilarating tribute to the power of Black women, is the boldest statement yet in a career that has always centered the Black female experience. Prince-Bythewood was also an athlete at UCLA, running track while making her student films. But as she pointed out on the afternoon she went back to Westwood for TheWrap, there was never much question which direction her career was headed.
When did you set your sights on becoming a filmmaker?
It’s interesting, because there were definitive stages. When I was little, my parents used to drop us off at the theater every weekend. That’s where I saw “Benji,” that’s where I saw “E.T.,” and I remember crying in the theater and being shocked that something could make me do that. I became a voracious reader when our TV broke when I was 9 and my parents refused to replace it, which was of course horrifying for me and my siblings. But it forced me to read. I would literally go to the library, check out 20 books a week and just read. And that absolutely influenced my love of storytelling.
And then when I got to high school, I became obsessed with soap operas. I read an article in Soap Opera Digest — that’s how obsessed I was. It was an interview with a soap opera writer, and that’s the first time I realized, “Oh, somebody gets paid to do that.” And so that was my goal when I set my sights on UCLA, to write soap operas. Once I got there and started hanging out at the film school, my sights got set a little higher, because you get the opportunity to see great movies on the big screen. Like “12 Angry Men” and “The Apartment” and “The Graduate.” Suddenly you’re immersed with these great films, and I started to see myself doing that.
Before that, were there particular films or TV shows that had an impact on you?
Yeah, absolutely. Once we got our TV back when I was a teenager, we as a family would watch “M*A*S*H,” “WKRP in Cincinnati…” And then one day “Diff’rent Strokes” came on, and I remember being blown away by seeing myself on TV. I became obsessed with that show. But I still hadn’t seen myself in films until I was 17, when I went to the movies and the trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It” came on. It felt like I was being blown back in my seat because there was a Black woman up on screen that seemed to be the star of this film.
That is a feeling that I want to give others. It’s absolutely getting better and there are more of us making movies and more diversity of content, which is beautiful. But if you really look at the numbers, it’s still dismal. And so that’s always been the fight in terms of putting Black women at the center of my stories and films: to give other people that feeling that I got of seeing yourself reflected on screen.
My goal in high school was to play basketball in college, and so USC was actually the place I was focused on because of Cheryl Miller. I’m sure I’m gonna get blasted for this, but I read that at USC (School of Cinematic Arts), not everybody gets to make a film. That it’s kind of set up like Hollywood, where you have to pitch and win a spot to make a film—where at UCLA, everybody makes movies. And that’s really how it should be. If you’re going to film school, you’re going to learn how to make movies. So my allegiance shifted to UCLA at that point.
What were the most valuable things that you learned at UCLA?
Well, the absolute most important lesson was to overcome “No.” And that is because you can only apply (to the film school) for your junior year at UCLA. So I hung out at the film school those first two years, worked on student films, worked on a soap opera, met all the professors, took as many classes as I could without being a student. I was sure I was going to get in. You’re supposed to give yourself a backup major because it’s so hard to get in, but I did not give myself a backup. I applied and I got a rejection letter. And that wrecked me, because I knew for a fact this is what I’m supposed to do. It was one of the worst nights of my life, and I had a very long cry.
And then the next day I said, “Let me go to the counselor.” So I went to the counselor and told him I wanted to appeal the decision and he said, “You can’t do that.” So I went home again, had another cry, and then wrote a letter. I poured myself into the letter, essentially saying why they made a mistake. And I sent it to the head of the film school, Ruth Schwartz. Two days later I got a phone call and she said, “We’re letting you in.” And that absolutely changed the trajectory of my life.
Was the school everything you were looking for?
The beauty of film school is it’s a safe place to fail. You’re just making movies and learning with everyone. You’re finding your voice. I found it incredibly creative. Everybody was supportive. Everyone’s giving comments on each other’s work, and you’re pushing each other and working on each other’s things. It’s a beautiful environment and I just feel like I found myself and the kind of things I wanted to do and say.
What didn’t you learn in school that you wish they had told you?
Working with actors. If I ever become head of UCLA film school, I’m absolutely gonna implement that. There was not enough interaction between us and the theater school, and we’re right next to each other. Directing actors is the one thing that you’re not taught, and I think it is such a learning curve for directors. You have to know how to talk to actors, work with actors. I got that from Sundance when I got into the Sundance (directing) lab and they made all of us directors take an acting class. Scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but what I learned in that class absolutely influenced my directing from that point forward.
These days, most film schools seem very conscious of the diversity of their student body. But in 1991, I assume there weren’t many women of color at the school.
Yeah. I think there were two of us in my class.
You mentioned the fight to put Black women at the center of your films. Was that important in your student films, too?
Yeah. I was putting myself in the writing. For me it was, “Let’s just see Black people up on screen living.” Which is what I feel and hope that I’m doing now. I want to see us in every genre. And there was a lot of controversy about my thesis film. It didn’t get put into the spotlight at the end of the year, where they choose the 10 best films and they invite the industry to come and see. A number of professors were adamant that the film needed to be there, but there were a couple fighting against it and it became a really big thing. And it felt very strange. To have people fighting for you and others to not see you or see the value in your story, that was tough.
Did the controversy have to do with the fact that it was centered in the Black experience?
I can give this as an example. There’s a film festival that The Woman King didn’t get into, and their feedback was that I’m a great action director. Which means they did not see the humanity of these women. That was a gut punch at first. You are an arbiter of taste, of what is considered good cinema, and you are blocking it. And that’s what it felt like in film school, where there were some professors who saw the film, loved it and wanted to give it a spotlight, and others who just didn’t get it. And that is the thing: They couldn’t see themselves in these characters.
Once you graduated, what was the path into the industry for you?
When you go to film school, you’re going because there’s only one thing you want to do, which is make movies. And graduating, I was like, “OK, I’m gonna graduate and scripts are gonna come flying at me!” Which doesn’t happen. Coming out of film school, I had a bunch of meetings based on my thesis film, but I had no scripts. So I’m sitting with the heads of studios. I remember specifically sitting with Stephanie Allain, who at that time was head of Columbia, a Black woman, someone I revered. And everybody asked the same thing, “What do you want to do? What do you have?” And I had nothing. So I came out really unprepared, and I felt like I wasted so many opportunities.
I had the opportunity to have an interview on “A Different World,” which was my favorite show at that time. It was a horrific interview. Again: totally unprepared, totally blew it. But I got the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences internship and worked at Quincy Jones Entertainment. And at that point I felt like I was kind of in, but I still didn’t know what I was gonna do. But the person who got the job at “A Different World” had been messing up and not taking the job seriously, and I got a call from (show creator) Susan Fales-Hill, who said, “Hey, we want to bring on another person.” So I went to work as a writer’s apprentice on “A Different World.” And that again changed the trajectory of my life. There were Black women running the show and those women took me under their wings and really guided me.
When you were at UCLA, were you dreaming big enough to envision something like “The Woman King?”
That’s the thing: I was. And then you get into the industry and you see that the industry is not believing in your dream. For a long time in my head, I would just say, “I wish I could make that.” I would see “Gladiator” or I would see “The Last of the Mohicans.” I would love to do that, but women were not allowed through that door. I think it was after “Captain America: Winter Soldier” when my older son said to me, “How come I don’t get to see myself in those movies?” And I thought to myself, “This is what I do. I make movies. I need to give him that. Let me give him a chance to see himself heroically, which he’s never gotten to see.”
But you need the industry to give you a chance to do it.
I didn’t feel discriminated against as a director, but it was my choices of what I wanted to make that were discriminated against. I would go in and pitch these films with Black women at the center, and I was getting nothing. No bites. Literally, people would say, “Can we cast this white?” To me, to my face. It’s the strangest thing that people wouldn’t see the offense in that. I’m here pitching my heart out. This is my vision. These characters are a piece of me. And what you’re saying is that you do not see my value and you don’t see the value in these stories. That is soul-crushing.
How different is it now? You came into “The Woman King” when it was already well along, but it still didn’t have a green light yet.
Yeah. It took Viola and (producers) Cathy (Schulman) and Julius (Tennon) six years to get it going. That’s a long time. It was the success of “Black Panther” that absolutely opened the door for “The Woman King.”
You can look at a film like Bros, where everybody is treating it like, “If ‘Bros’ doesn’t succeed, they won’t make gay movies.”
You’d think that “The Woman King” should be beyond that, because we’ve had so many examples of movies with predominantly Black casts that have done extraordinarily well. But I suppose there’s still the question, “Can we do a big movie with a largely female Black cast?” hanging over the film.
Yes. That’s in your brain every day. I know Hollywood, and every movie has a target on it. If it does well, then we get to keep making movies and the other filmmakers get to keep making movies. If it doesn’t do well, the pipeline shuts down for a moment and we’ve got to wait for something else to break out. That type of pressure can squash you or it can push you, and it absolutely pushes me.