“If you’ve written good characters, I think that their colour drops away”: interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood

Gina Prince-Bythewood is one of the US film industry’s most solid presences, making insightful and moving films that touch upon the many facets of black life.

Never heard of her? Well, she’s a black female director, so that’s not that surprising. What is, however, a bit more surprising, is that her latest film was headed straight for DVD release in the UK (after a one-off appearance at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2015). Beyond the Lights, a gripping music industry-based love story, is after all set partially in Brixton and features two British actors (Belle star Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver) in leading roles.

Luckily, Corrina Antrobus of The Bechdel Test Fest stepped in and managed to organise two screenings of the film in London. The first one, at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton on Friday 31 July, will feature a panel including Gugu Mbatha-Raw and filmmaker Cecile Emeke, plus a Skype intro by the director herself. The other, a Sunday matinee , will take place at the plush and beautiful Picturehouse Central, the newest jewel in Picturehouse Cinemas’ crown.

Before the screening I spoke to Gina on Skype about feminism in her films, varying representations of black life in cinema and how important music is in her creative process.

Interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood

All of your films pass the Bechdel Test and relationships between women seem pivotal to their narratives. Do you write deliberately feminist films?
Gina-gugu-500x300I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate, I would say that I just write what I want to see. I want to see women up on screen, I want to see diverse women up on screen, I want to see women in lead roles, having a full arc and not just being an adornment. I want women that have it all, that have a career and have love, and show that you really can have both, and hopefully women can be inspired by this. I consider myself a feminist, I hope that my films do inspire women.

What are your thoughts on Beyond the Lights being described as a “black film”?
My issue with it for any film, and it really is a big issue out here in America − everything in America is about race, and everything in Hollywood is about race − is that as much as we act like Hollywood is very liberal, it really isn’t, and they have very archaic and old fashioned views on film, and people of colour in film. Hollywood likes to say that any film with people of colour in it is a “black film”, and it’s just a way to marginalise a film and its audience, and give it less: less money, publicity, marketing … because it’s only going to appeal to a black audience, which is just not true. I hate the term; “black film” is not a genre. “Love story” is a genre, “science fiction” is a genre. My hope is that I make universal films and appeal to everybody. There are people of colour in the leads, but that should not affect the way that the audience can empathise with the characters. If you’ve written good characters, I think that their colour drops away, and you’re just focused on what that character is going through.

When I first got to the studio Relativity with this film, they kept saying it was an “urban film”. I finally said to them, we need a moratorium on that term because this is not an “urban film”, that is code for “black film”, and this film is a love story. Props to them, they started using that terminology. However when we got to marketing and publicity, they just fell back to the same trope, that there’s only one way to sell this film, and that was infuriating. To not even open it up or try when we had proved at Toronto Film Festival, by getting a standing ovation by an almost all white audience, that it obviously appeals to a huge audience. They just failed to see that and it’s infuriating.

That makes me wonder how the film would be marketed if only one of the leads were black.
If you look at The Bodyguard − my film is nothing like it, and still it kept getting compared to it − it was never considered a “black film”, because Kevin Costner was at the heart of it. It happens when there are two people of colour, so if you look at Will Smith films, they’re not considered “black films” because most of his female co-stars are white or Latina. You have to start believing that there is a deliberate nature to that casting, because it keeps happening over and over again.

If there are so many films with people of colour in them and they are all the same, then that’s how the rest of the world will start to view and see us, and think that that is “black life”

Though it’s only touched on briefly, Noni’s mixed ethnicity seems really pivotal to the film. Was the character deliberately written as mixed race and, if so, what was your reasoning for doing this?
When I first wrote the script, she was not mixed race. But as I was going through the writing process, which was about two years, my husband read it and said: “Why don’t you make it closer to your truth?” I was adopted and my birth mother is white. I thought about it, and I said: “Why not?” and looking at the story, it seemed to make it inherently more interesting, and more personal, which I think makes it a better script. In exploring that, I was able to deal with some of the issues that I dealt with, which were me being given up for adoption, due to my birth mother’s parents finding out that my father was black and saying: “You can’t have this black baby.” But I didn’t want it to be the story, it’s just a part of the story, and just the visual alone says so much. I also thought it was interesting to have a white mother bring her daughter here [USA] and co-opt the blueprint that black female artists need to follow, of hypersexuality, to get noticed and be seen.

What was your reaction to the lack of distribution given to Beyond the Lights in the UK, especially considering the fact that it stars two well-known British actresses?
A tremendous amount of anger. It had just never occurred to me that this might happen. Going in, it seemed like a given that the film would come out in the US and then go over to the UK. There were a few issues − the way that Relativity [film studio] works is that they don’t have a chunk of money they draw from like most studios, so Universal picked it up for international release, but there was no dialogue between us. I wanted to submit the film for London Film Festival like I did with Secret Life of Bees (2008), but they said that the timing was wrong, and it made no sense to me at all. When I met with the international folks, it all seemed good but they didn’t even tell me directly, suddenly it was a straight to DVD release, and it was a shock. It was a shock to me, a shock to Gugu, and the reasons that they were giving, such as saying that the cast and I weren’t willing to give publicity, were an outright lie. In terms of performance out here [in the US], it wasn’t a blockbuster but it still did okay, and we had great reviews and a ton of spots on “Top Ten” lists. Their other arguments were that it’s a crowded field, but to not even try or put it onto a couple of screens … it just made no sense.


The other issue that they were supposed to talk to us about was the poster, and they never did … I saw the DVD cover and it’s just not the movie. I had zero say and it looks like crap. Nobody has captured what the film is, even in the US. The TV spots hurt us, the posters hurt us. The marketing didn’t work out in the US, so why repeat the exact same marketing in the UK? Gugu’s performance alone really deserved the effort.

One of my favourite elements of your filmmaking is your focus on black middle class life, which seems a rarity in cinema. How important is it to you that your films show varying types of black people and don’t fall into cliché?
It comes down again to writing what you know, and what you want to see. I didn’t grow up like John Singleton, he wrote Boyz in Da Hood [1991] as his normal, whereas Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights are my normal. It’s also so important that we have a diversity of thought. There was a time period where we were just seeing one thing, and if there are so many films with people of colour in them and they are all the same, then that’s how the rest of the world will start to view and see us, and think that that is “black life”. But black life, as we know, is such an enormous spectrum, and that’s what I loved about the films that I saw last year − Top Five, Selma, Belle, Dear White People … they were so different, and that’s what we need, that’s what’s been missing in Hollywood.

One key theme of the film is the role that young women play in the music industry. What are your thoughts on the treatment of these real-life inspirations for Noni?
Noni is ultimately her own character, but she was based on Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, but also Beyoncé and Rihanna … she’s her own artist but she’s one that’s following the blueprint that so many young female artists have to follow in our music industry. You just look at so many artists who came out hypersexualised, made a lot of noise, but then what? You’re trapped in that persona, so you have to live that 24/7, and if it’s not authentic to you then it’s soul crushing. So it was really targeting some of the younger artists; if you look at Beyoncé, Madonna, or Rihanna, their sexuality is authentic to them. Do I think that they push it a little too far once in a while? Yes. But for the most part, they are in control of their image, as opposed to some of the younger artists coming up right now, where you know that their labels are telling them what to wear, what to sing, what to say in interviews … If you look at Miley Cyrus, she was one thing, and then she became a joke, which was absolutely unfair to her, but she’s now broken out and become a whole other thing, and she’s now the most successful that she’s ever been.

When you listen to a soundtrack, you start thinking about that movie again, and it’s like getting to watch the movie again

You see it all happening and you just wish that we could go back to the voice being most important, and not the product. When Alicia [Keys] came out with ‘Fallin’’ for the first time, and everyone was just like “Who is that?”, or Adele, where it was all about the music and the lyrics … right now it seems more about the image that you’re putting out as opposed to the music. Pop music all sounds the same, men as well as women.

How do you feel about artists writing their own material, as opposed to having songs written for them?
I don’t actually have an issue with artists singing other people’s material … everyone gets help. Lauryn Hill got help but y’all love Lauryn Hill, because what she brings as an artist is so beautiful, and raw and truthful … even Nina Simone got help with some songs. I think my issue is with artists that get handed a song, and told how to sing it. That was one of the most fascinating things about making the film for me − we worked with The-Dream, who is of course one of the most influential hip-hop producers. He records his own demos, which meant that when Gugu had to record the songs, she had to sing it down to the very breath, she had to do it exactly as he did. It was just somebody else putting something into her, which was fascinating for Gugu and myself, to not be putting anything into the world and to not have your own voice.

Speaking of music, song choices seem really important in your films, particularly in Love and Basketball that spans multiple eras and thus a variety of music. How important is music to your writing/directing process?
Music is everything to my writing and directing process. I write to music, so every time I start a new screenplay, I put together a playlist of songs that open me up emotionally to what I’m about to write. Lauryn Hill is great to write to, Alicia Keys… but also Peter Gabriel, Coldplay… Then during the directing process, as well as research, I also give my actors mixtapes of songs that should speak to their characters. For Gugu in Beyond the Lights I gave her two mixtapes − one of the most ignorant stuff that would be her normal, as well as one of music that she aspired to make, with music like Nina Simone, Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill … I also use music during shooting, during the whole Mexico sequence in the film I asked the actors to come up with a couple of songs that really spoke to them and their characters. The song that Gugu gave me, ‘Shelter’ by Birdy, actually ended up in the movie, which was really cool.

In terms of soundtracks, getting that perfect song is everything because a great song can elevate a scene. In the same way as discovering new actors, I love to discover new songs. Ultimately it’s about finding the perfect song, like the Maxwell song in Love and Basketball, in the love scene … Finding that scene was everything. It’s exciting to find that perfect song for a soundtrack. Also because I love soundtracks. When Purple Rain came out I wore out that soundtrack. When you listen to a soundtrack, you start thinking about that movie again, and it’s like getting to watch the movie again. That was what I wanted to give my audience.

Tonight’s screening is sold out but you can still get tickets for a Sunday screening of Beyond the Lights in Picturehouse Central.

Both pictures courtesy of Bechdel Test Fest.
First picture is of Gina Prince-Bythewood and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Second picture is a still from the film. It shows a young dark-skinned woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni) with long wavy hair, silver with purple streaks. She’s wearing a gold strapless bra, shiny metal collar on her neck with a thin chain running down between her breasts and metal bands on her arms. She is being slightly pushed forward by a white middle-aged woman standing behind her (Minnie Driver as Macy), with dark hair smoothly pulled back and large earrings, wearing a black waistcoat. They appear to be on a stage, with audience members visible in the background.