Black filmmakers have struck gold at box offices nationwide in recent years with films like Jumping The Broom, Ride Along, the Think Like a Man series, The Best Man Holiday and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. However, it is hard to sell blockbuster films featuring ensemble cast and crews of color to mainstream Hollywood studios.
The fickle (yet predominately white) motion picture industry is convinced that there isn’t a market for featuring or developing black talent for the silver screen. Though the listed films above grossed millions in their opening weekend and topped at the box office, the resistance towards black cinema in Hollywood informs a conjoining belief that black female writers and directors are incapable of telling universal stories.
This false assumption about black women directors is the furthest thing from the truth.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, for example, uses her creative license and savvy to defy the Hollywood system’s misinformed, rigid folklore. She creates and directs projects that both celebrate the complexities of black relationships and reveal the depth of extraordinary actors with amazing talent.
“I write what I want to see,” says Prince-Bythewood. “My motivation for writing is to put us on the big screen in a positive light. Positive doesn’t mean perfect. That’s boring. I write characters as real people with flaws with good parts for us to see and for others to see.”
Prince-Bythewood, who has been married to producer, writer and director Reggie Rock Bythewood for 16 years ago, committed four years to craft her current feature film, Beyond The Lights. It is an entertaining, music-filled romantic drama that tells the compelling story of massively successful pop singer, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who connects with a police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), after he saves her from a near fatal suicide attempt.
Noni struggles to find her own voice despite being the “IT girl” in a highly publicized, hypersexualized music industry and being pushed by her overprotective mother/manager (Minnie Driver). Kaz, on the other hand, is being seduced towards a career in politics. He’s coerced by his father (Danny Glover) not to pursue a relationship with the pop chanteuse because of her image.
With directorial credits including Love and Basketball, Disappearing Acts and The Secret Life of Bees, Prince-Bythewood concentrates strictly on developing the characters in Beyond The Lights for two years. The remaining two years went into the film’s production.
The curly-haired director proclaims that she’s a “slow writer,” revising the film’s script 55 times. The focused UCLA Film School alumna doesn’t particularly enjoy writing. She frequently experiences bouts of writer’s block.
Prince-Bythewood makes it a point during a roundtable conversation at Morehouse College to reiterate how important it is for filmmakers to be connected and committed to telling a story.
“I write to direct,” she says. “You have this image of a great film in your head. Once you start writing, it’s never great, and that’s so disheartening. Push through that part of it, and once you start rewriting, you’ll get closer to that thing in your head.”
When the ball rolls, Prince-Bythewood is in full swing. Focusing on making Beyond The Lights as authentic as possible, the filmmaker completely immersed herself and the cast in all aspects of the music industry.
She and Mbatha-Raw attended concerts headlined by Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Rihanna. They went to the Grammy and BET Awards. Writing her stories to music, Prince-Bythewood created mixtapes for rehearsals.
At rehearsals, she gave strict instructions to Emmy-nominated choreographer Laurieann Gibson to be as hard on Mbatha-Raw as she would be on any of her pop star clientele. The actress who earned rave reviews in the Amma Asante-directed period piece, Belle, rehearsed four days a week three hours a day. Trained extensively in ballet, the worlds of hip hop and R&B were completely foreign to the actress.
Prince-Bythewood is still captivated by Mbatha-Raw’s professionalism. In turn, the actress believed in the director’s style and vision. Mbatha-Raw completely trusted Prince-Bythewood with the same regard as Asante.
“She knew I had something to say that was not exploitative,” says Prince-Bythewood. “She has that innate vulnerability where you care about her. She gives such an incredibly brave, bold performance. She dove into it. We were trying to change the conversation, and she goes there in a really beautiful way.”
Prince-Bythewood spent time talking about some of the hurdles attached to finding a studio and distributor for her film. One studio executive suggested to the soft-spoken director that she edit out Beyond The Lights’ steamy airplane scene.
The scene didn’t hit the cutting room floor.
“I’ll go back and forth with studios, but ultimately they do respect the fact I’m so committed to my vision,” says an uncompromising Prince-Bythewood.
“It’s soul crushing to have a story that you want to tell, and no one else seems to see it. I start thinking ‘Is there something wrong with the way I’m presenting it?’ I just needed to keep fighting.”
Prince-Bythewood’s casting preferences are another issue. Executives asked her to cast a “major star” like Channing Tatum in this film. They also questioned if the actors had to be black.
Also blessed with a slew of television credits including A Different World, South Central, Sweet Justice, Felicity, Girlfriends, The Bernie Mac Show and Everybody Hates Chris, Prince-Bythewood knows how to pick and choose her battles.
“With major studios, you know it’s going to get out in the world,” she says. “You know you’re going to have to fight. A film can get away from you in an instant if you’re not strong. I know what my vision is and what I’m trying to say.”
Staying true to her vision again, Prince-Bythewood bypassed the major Hollywood studio route altogether. She piggybacks on her original point on why it’s essential to be hands on with filmmaking upon shopping it around to studios.
“It’s fully your vision,” she says. “Nobody knows it better than you. What fuels the fight is the passion I have for the story. It’s all mine. I don’t have the studio over my shoulder giving notes and trying to change things, but it may never see the light of day.”
The persistent creator delivered an eight-minute presentation of Beyond The Lights to BET Films after. Though Prince-Bythewood was extremely nervous, BET loved her work.
Relativity Media, because of its relationship with BET, also came on-board. The company mentions Prince-Bythewood’s project to New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire, who is signed to the company’s sports management division.
Stoudemire contributed $1 million to Beyond The Lights’ production costs.
Immediately following an advanced screening of Beyond The Lights in Atlanta, the obviously proud Prince-Bythewood sat with her legs crossed in the lobby of the theater expressing her gratitude for completing the film.
She mentioned BET personnel like the network’s former President of Original Programming, Loretha Jones, Senior Vice President of Original Programming, Charlie Jordan Brookins and current Chairman and CEO Debra Lee for acquiring distribution and picking up the $7 million price tag it cost to make Beyond The Lights.
“This film would not have been made without BET,” asserts Prince-Bythewood. “They saw it and immediately got it. They want to change the perspective of BET.”
Joining BET’s endorsement for Prince-Bythewood’s work were Don Lemon, Gayle King, Big Sean, Estelle, Chaka Khan and Roland S. Martin who made cameos in the film. They each flew in on their own dime and appeared pro bono. Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter The-Dream composed four original songs for the film.
Still seated in the lobby with her legs crossed, an amazingly easygoing and diplomatic Prince-Bythewood believes the journey to complete Beyond The Lights has absolutely nothing to do with her being a black woman.
She says it’s her choices as a filmmaker that prevents her from securing major backing and support from the Hollywood machine. “I don’t feel discriminated against as a black female because I get offered a lot of stuff across all genres,” she says.
“What is discriminated against are my choices. My choice is to focus on black movies, and studios are just not checking for that. That’s what has to change. Studios are run by white men, and they’re greenlighting things they want to see and identify with.”
Prince-Bythewood adds, “The key is to get more women and people of color in those positions so they can get the chance to green light things they want to see.”
With that in mind, Prince-Bythewood is committed to supporting other black writers and directors. She seeks peer editing and has lunch often with Mara Brock Akil, Felicia Henderson, Kasi Lemmons, Dee Rees, Tina Mabry, Terilyn A. Shropshire, Malcolm D. Lee and Jamal Joseph.
She refers to them as “her crew.” “It’s a great group of people that are blunt and honest with me,” says Prince-Bythewood. “We do that for each other.”
At her alma mater, Prince-Bythewood, along with Akil, Henderson and writer/producer Sara Finney-Johnson, endow the Four Sisters Scholarship. The financial award supports students creating original works in screenwriting, animation and directing focusing on African American life.
Prince-Bythewood is especially proud of writer and producer Lena Waithe, who produced Dear White People and is currently developing a serial comedy, Bros, for HBO. Waithe is Prince-Bythewood’s assistant from The Secret Life of Bees.
“[Lena] is a hustler,” says Prince-Bythewood. “She’ll take a note, and she understands the process. People helped me. It’s a cool thing to reach back out and be supportive. It’s really about us pulling the next generation.”
Beyond The Lights’ opening weekend grossed $6.2 million in box office receipts, landing the film at number four on the chart. Though film critics may consider the metrics problematic, Prince-Bythewood is extremely proud that she didn’t play by the film industry’s rules.
As the world anticipates the upcoming release of Ava DuVernay’s Civil Rights-era period drama, Selma, Prince-Bythewood wishes that she could celebrate more black female directors making films on their own terms.
She knows more work has to be done to fully level the playing field for black and female directors.
“I want to be in the game to change the game,” says Prince-Bythewood. “Talent has no gender. There should be no reason why there’s not more. We make movies for an audience. If I make a movie outside of the studio system and nobody goes to see it, then I haven’t done my job.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.