Presented by the School of Cinematic Arts’ Council on Diversity & Inclusion, writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood spoke at the Albert & Dana Broccoli Theatre on Tuesday evening. She provided insights on the career she’s built in spite of dismissive production companies, dicey encounters with male industry moguls and even an initial rejection from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, her alma mater.
As the creator of many influential films casting African American leads, such as Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, and a recipient of an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and a Humanitas Prize, Prince-Bythewood has amassed an impressive filmography and recently became the first woman of color to direct a superhero movie, with a Spiderman spin-off in the works.
Growing up, Prince-Bythewood immersed herself in soap operas as a form of escapism from a less-than-ideal childhood experience, which led her to develop an affinity for storytelling in the form of screenwriting.
As a filmmaker who is passionate about addresing social justice issues and social consciousness, she is passionate about creating works that don’t just serve as entertainment.
“Our country is in dire straits and we can use art to change the world,” Prince-Bythewood said.
She also focuses on extensive character development, emphasizing the importance of having her audience imagine the life of a character that continues beyond the screen.
“I want characters to be real, with a background,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I think about their religion, hobbies, favorite food [and] favorite color.”
She said that at a time when people of color lack meaningful representation on the screen, Prince-Bythewood strives to transcend racial and gender stereotypes without making it the central trope of the show or movie, crafting nuanced characters to change how race and gender are represented on screen.
“I want to put us [black women] in films and see ourselves reflected on screen, because we don’t get enough movies made about us,” Prince-Bythewood said.
She criticized production companies for placing more faith and capital in films with white protagonists because they’re “more universally relatable” as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that unfairly denotes gems of black cinema. As a black woman, Prince-Bythewood is not only a formidable presence in the film and television industry, but also an artist who allows the masses to sympathize on a deeply human level through minority leads, letting viewers become aware of their own political realities. Her TV series Shots Fired addresses police brutality and represents the advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A recurring theme during the Q&A with the filmmaker was an unwavering perseverance in the face of adversity and a fierce integrity toward her work. The exhausting hustle of pitching scripts to production companies who didn’t believe in her vision, especially in an industry known for its devaluation of the contributions from women and people of color, did not sway her into compromising her ideas or artistic approach. Rather, Prince-Bythewood stood by her work and took matters into her own hands. When Sony Pictures dropped her pitch for Beyond the Lights, she decided to shoot a short film based on the movie with money out of her own pocket and granted it to BET, which then got on board and gave her a $2 million budget to produce the movie.
Speaking from her own experiences, she urges filmmakers to trust their instincts, especially during the initial stages of a project.
“Come at it with what you want to see — you’re the first audience,” Prince-Bythewood said.
She said her first concern is not whether or not production companies will have confidence in her ideas or whether the movie will even gain fame or commercial success, but rather if it resonates with her on a personal level. Even being on bed rest post-surgery did not keep her from attending production meetings, something she says she tells people when they say women aren’t tough enough to be directors.
At the event, Prince-Bythewood was asked how she’d like to affect the industry after having led such an impressive career, she offered an earnest, genuine piece of advice
“Have integrity and give back to people,” Prince-Bythewood said. “Stay true to yourself and remember where you came from.”