Of all the joys that came from my recent viewing of The Woman King in theaters, my favorite was simply watching another one of Gina Prince Bythewood’s visions brought to life. Since 2000 when she came on to the scene with her sports romantic drama Love and Basketball, Bythewood has built a diverse filmography that centers Black women.
xoNecole is here to take you through Bythewood’s films over the years and how the filmmaker continues to hold it down for Black women on screen.
Love & Basketball (2000)
In her cult classic feature film directorial debut Love and Basketball, Bythewood gave the world a love story about childhood sweethearts Monica (Sanaa Lathan in her breakout role) and Quincy (Omar Epps) who bond over their love for basketball and each other. Bythewood said this of the film in a 2020 interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
The kernel of the idea was that I wanted to make a Black When Harry Met Sally. I love that film, and there was a dearth or nonexistence of love stories made with Black characters. It was something that I wanted to see reflected; I wanted to see myself reflected. I also wanted to tell a story that put into the world that women could have both — love and career.
The Secret Life of Bees (2008)
Nearly a decade after her directorial debut, Bythewood was back with The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the book of the same name. Starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning as Lily, the film tells a familial love story about the sweetness of chosen family and rebuilding your life after trauma. In talking about why she decided to direct the film she said this to The Los Angeles Times:
The main protagonist] Lily’s journey was so similar to something I went through. I was adopted by a Salvadoran mother and a white father, and growing up I had a lot of issues about who was my real mother, why was I given up. [In the book, when Lily says she’s unlovable,] That was the moment where I said, ‘I have to make this film,’ because I said those exact words myself.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
In Beyond the Lights, Bythewood brings to the screen Noni, a biracial singer portrayed by Gugu Mbatha Raw, as she tries to break free from the pressure of fame and an overbearing stage mom Macy. It isn’t until crossing paths with Officer Kaz who saves her during a mental health crisis that she sees a path to a world beyond the glitz and glitter of the music industry. It’s loosely based on Bythewood’s life after reconnecting with her biological mother didn’t yield the results she was hoping. Bythewood said of her biological mom in an interview with Collider:
If this woman had ended up raising me, I would have grown up in a home that didn’t have unconditional love and how damaging that could be because it should be the right of every child. I wanted to deal with that [in Beyond the Lights], and that was really the catalyst for the Macy-Noni relationship of a girl who’s growing up and a woman who’s trying to find her own self-worth in her daughter and how damaging that can be, but also using her love as a carrot, at times, as well, to push her daughter into the direction that she wants.
The Old Guard (2020)
The Old Guard starring Kiki Layne and Charlize Theron was the beginning of Bythewood expanding her talents from quieter dramas, to the world of action. Old Guard centers on a group of immortal soldiers who fight to protect themselves when they realize someone is threatening to expose their secrets. In an interview with Thrillist she said:
I had been actively pushing my career in this direction because I love action films and I wanted the opportunity to do one myself," she tells me. "Hollywood did not seem as eager to have that happen for women until Patty Jenkins, and all praise to Patty who just killed it with Wonder Woman and absolutely cracked the door open.
The Woman King (2022)
The Woman King feels like a culmination of all the things Bythewood has been building over her career: The maternal conflict of Beyond the Lights; The love of a found family of The Secret Life of Bees; The romance from Love & Basketball; The action and fight scenes of the Old Guard. All this mixed together brings to life the Agojie, the women warriors of the Dahomey tribe who reckon with their role as slavers and harness their collective power to free the oppressed tribes from their captors. In a Rolling Stone interview, star and producer of the film Viola Davis recounted that Bythewood gave an impassioned pitch where the director ended up breaking down in tears because of her strong connection to the material. “Everyone in the room knew she was the one to direct The Woman King, because she was going to protect and honor it the same way she would her own story,” Davis said.