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Gina Prince-Bythewood On 'The Old Guard' & Creating Space For Black Women In Hollywood

"There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity."

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Since commanding our attention with Love & Basketball 20 years ago, Gina Prince-Bythewood has been laser-focused on creating space for Black women in Hollywood. That mission doesn't change now that she has made history with Netflix's latest action film, The Old Guard.

As grand as this moment is, Gina isn't impressed by the fact that she is the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book film. She questions why it took all this time instead. "I hate that we're still having firsts in 2020," she tells xoNecole. "It's like, at what point does it stop?"

THE OLD GUARD Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX

The Old Guard, which zooms in on an intimate camp of immortal mercenaries, isn't a mere win for Gina. In her eyes, it's a chance to ensure that Black women both in front of and behind the camera are no longer denied the shot to display the full scope of their talent. "I had a no-fail policy because I know how Hollywood works," she stresses. "There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity."

In this xoChat, Gina reflects on cementing her name with Love & Basketball, overcoming rejection in Hollywood, and making room for KiKi Layne to shine in The Old Guard.

xoNecole: This year, you celebrated 20 years of 'Love & Basketball'. How has it been taking in how deep of a mark your first feature film has made?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: It really is amazing. It never gets old to hear that people dig the film. It's surreal that a film that was so hard to get made, that was such an incredible fight, that was such a personal story, has had longevity and that people still share it with family and friends after all this time. As an artist, that's what you dream about, of having your work sustain itself and affect people, so I'm blown away by it. It inspires me to keep doing what I'm doing.

Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX

What lesson from those early moments in your career do you keep close to the heart?

Overcome "no". That's the biggest thing. You only need one "yes".

When considering obstacles you’ve faced on your path, what keeps you from being jaded two decades into your career?

I'm acutely aware of the things that Hollywood has done wrong [and] how they're complicit in what is happening right now during this national reckoning, but what keeps me in this is I love to tell stories, I love what I do, and I know how important TV and film can be in shaping perception and changing culture. That sustains me. I only do things that I'm passionate about, and there are so many stories I want to tell, so there's always that excitement for me to get this into the world. The thing that creeps in every once in a while is knowing how hard it is to get some of these stories out there, but because I'm so passionate about it and know the game after 20 years and know that at some point somebody is going to say "yes", that absolutely keeps me going.

"I'm acutely aware of the things that Hollywood has done wrong [and] how they're complicit in what is happening right now during this national reckoning, but what keeps me in this is I love to tell stories, I love what I do, and I know how important TV and film can be in shaping perception and changing culture. That sustains me."

Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX


Thinking about the power that TV and film has, what on screen impacted you the most, especially when you think about why you decided to become a filmmaker in the first place?

There were two moments. When I was younger, I remember my family used to always sit down and watch M*A*S*H [together]. Then, one day I happened to turn the channel and Diff'rent Strokes was on, and it was the first time I felt like I saw myself reflected in this box, and I just became obsessed with it. Then in high school, when I was 17, I went to the movies and a trailer came up for She's Gotta Have It, and I got that same jolt of seeing a Black woman up there, and it affected me deeply. I wanted to give us that same jolt and give us the opportunity to see ourselves in ways that we can be inspired by.

With 'The Old Guard', you’ve become the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book film. How do you feel about that?

I hate that we're still having firsts in 2020. It's like, at what point does it stop? But, I'm proud of the fact that I got this opportunity to do it. I certainly worked hard to get it, and once I got it, I had a no-fail policy because I know how Hollywood works. There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity. I carried that with me every day. That pressure fueled me as opposed to making me run away from it. I know that there are so many dope sisters out there that are as capable and eager to do the same thing, so I'm looking forward to them getting the shot.

"There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity. I carried that with me every day. That pressure fueled me as opposed to making me run away from it. I know that there are so many dope sisters out there that are as capable and eager to do the same thing, so I'm looking forward to them getting the shot."

Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX


'The Old Guard' is an adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic book of the same name. What was it about this story that you gravitated to the most?

The [part I gravitated to] most was the fact that one of the old guards is a young, Black female hero. I was like, "Yeah, I need to put this in the world." I dug that she was naturally a warrior. There was such a normalcy to that. There wasn't some traumatic event that happened to her that forced her to find her strength. She was a Marine. She had it in her. It was innate in her. I love that narrative, and I love that it was two women at the forefront of the story with that same warrior mentality that I think that we all have, but we haven't always been given the encouragement to tap into. I also really dug the story. I liked what it had to say about finding your purpose and the importance of that, which was something very personal to me, and I felt the audience could connect with that despite the fantastical premise. I love that it was about the tragedy of immortality as opposed to the aspirational aspects. Prior to this movie, I used to think, I wish I could live forever. You think about the courage that would give you if you knew you couldn't die, but in doing this [film], you understand what that really means.

In our recent chat with KiKi Layne, she commended you for not allowing the action in the film to overpower the heart of the characters. Why was this so important to you?

What I love about the genre is the direction that it's really been going in the last couple of years where they feel more like action-dramas. That's what I love. I want to be able to care about the characters and not just watch action. If you don't care about the characters, if they're not furthering the story, then it gets monotonous to me. What I wanted to bring to this film was story first and character first, so that you, as an audience, are invested in and care about these people that you're spending two hours with.

You’ve dedicated your career to creating space for Black women to live on screen. What do you hope viewers take away from KiKi’s embodiment of Nile?

KiKi rocked it. I really want us to be able to look up on screen and see ourselves in a way that's inspiring. The best moment of this process was when we had an audience screening, and this sister, 22-years-old, commented that she wished she had Nile when she was 12-years-old. That was so dope to me. If we can see it for ourselves, we can start to live in that type of truth. The thing that makes Nile so badass is not just her strength and her swagger and her courage, but also her empathy and her vulnerability. I think that Nile and KiKi really embody all of that, and I think that she is definitely someone that we can aspire to be.

"If we can see it for ourselves, we can start to live in that type of truth. The thing that makes Nile so badass is not just her strength and her swagger and her courage, but also her empathy and her vulnerability. I think that Nile and KiKi really embody all of that, and I think that she is definitely someone that we can aspire to be."

Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX

With one superhero film down, where do you go from here?

As soon as I finished [The Old Guard], I was exhausted. It's a lot to shoot a film like this. I just kept thinking that I can't wait to get to another movie in my head that I want to write that's smaller and more personal. I was going to take six months off and just relax and write and shoot that, and then this script came to me that's just so dope. It's going to be announced very shortly. It just felt like everything I've done in my career, including The Old Guard, put me in a position to be able to make this film for us, so that little movie that's still in my head is going to have to wait another two years (laughs).

For more of Gina, follow her on Instagram. The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.

Featured image by Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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