Gina Prince-Bythewood On 'The Old Guard' & Creating Space For Black Women In Hollywood
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.
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."
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."
'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."
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
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Being broke can be subjective because it means different things to different people. I had a coworker who said she felt "broke" when she only had $2,000 in all three of her checking accounts. Another considered having a negative account balance as "broke" after using overdraft fees to keep spending even when her account balances were low. Some might think "broke" is living off of credit cards after their cash has depleted. Others might have thousands of dollars in their accounts but not enough to cover their everyday bills with a bit left over for a rainy day.
No matter what your "broke" definition is, it's never a good thing, and with so much talk about financial fitness, recessions, and unemployment, how can you focus on better days when you're barely making ends meet, you're living check to check, or you're struggling with debt? Here are a few helpful tips that I lean on, especially when my pockets are screaming, "Chile, we're tired!"
1. Take a deep breath and release the shame.
High debt levels have been linked with depression and anxiety, and oftentimes, shame leads to avoidance. Find a bit of comfort in knowing that you aren't the only one struggling financially. (In fact, 35% of Americans have recently reported that they're in the "most debt of their lives," 61% reported they're living check to check, and Black women hold a disproportionate piece of the trillions of dollars in student loan debt).
Sis, we all deal with financial difficulties, so it's not something to be ashamed of. Find verbal ways to affirm yourself and boost your self-esteem, or talk to someone about how you're feeling. (There are free resources like the NAMI Helpline.)
Also, there are many reasons you could be "broke" that are simply beyond your control and aren't really a matter of fault on your part. It could have been a financial mistake, a lawsuit, a family cycle of poverty, an illness, a sudden loss of employment, an abusive relationship, or a natural disaster.
Some of these things take years to recover from financially, and you might have periods of being "broke" as you're trying to get back on your feet. And let's not forget, institutional and systemic issues of racism and sexism financially impact Black women in ways that are vastly disproportionate, so keep this in mind whenever you feel thoughts of regret and shame overpowering those of grace, problem-solving, and positivity.
2. Face the fears and ugly truths and make budgeting your friend.
Early in my budget journey, I hated the idea of it. I experienced childhood trauma related to frugality and limits, so, as an adult, I'd overspend simply because I hated feeling limited on what I could buy, especially food. I hated the thought of having a cap on anything related to the money I'd worked hard to earn. I'd buy on impulse, spend money eating out a lot, and prioritize entertainment and pleasure spending.
In my case, it wasn't about being neglected or deprived as a child, but I just loved food and freedom and hated when we only could go to restaurants on special occasions or how I'd always have to share food with five or more people. I was always privy to great meals, family vacations, and other amazing activities, and my middle-class family was always super-supportive, giving, and kind, but I grew a chip on my shoulder related to boundaries.
I learned in adulthood that budgeting isn't about deprivation, that I'd felt like nothing was enough as a child because I sought love through material things and grand gestures of money being spent, and that boundaries are a healthy aspect of maturity.
I also learned that budgeting could help me reach my lifestyle goals because, again, I love food, enjoying a great 5-star restaurant or a five-course dining experience. Even when you're "broke," you can still create a budget because the process includes realistically noting your everyday expenses, being super-aware of your actual take-home income, looking through your bills and calling creditors to negotiate or set up plans, acknowledging your splurge habits, and setting actual, realistic financial goals. I sat down once when I was flat broke, upset about debt that really wasn't as bad as I thought, and the process to at least get a handle on it actually turned out to be more than doable.
I also found out in my efforts to budget even while broke that I could actually get rid of unnecessary expenses and shift that money to things that matter to me, like security through savings, money for self-care, and a travel fund.
When you sit down and start the process of budgeting, it's empowering and scary at the same time, but at least you can finally breathe a sigh of relief by knowing the full picture of the truth in your financial situation and get the assistance you need in order to create a plan for financial wellness.
3. Start small and shift your mentality from "not enough" to "I can better manage what I have for now."
I've always been a go-big or go-home type of person who used to think in extremes. For example, if I couldn't buy a whole living room furniture set in full, with cash, I wasn't buying anything. Or if I only had $50, I couldn't save because it wasn't $100 or $1,000, so why not just spend the whole $50? Yep, that was me.
My anxiety over debt and always feeling like I didn't have enough subsided when I started to shift my thinking about what actually constitutes "small" or "not enough." So, for example, even if I only had $2 to my name, I could put 50 cents into my savings account instead of just spending the $2 on a burger because I'm emotionally eating due to shame. I could just buy the sofa and save up for the rest to purchase gradually over time.
My Granny has always earned less than $40,000 per year (and even less back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s) and leveraged that to keep ownership of her home, pay off her credit cards, and help out generations of family members simply because she never thought what she was earning was "too little" and was big on saving something. "Even if it's 5 cents, I saved it! You have to work with what you got and save your money! Try not to spend your last dime!" she'd always tell me.
If you don't make enough to meet savings account minimums, keep a jar of coins or envelopes with dollars at home. Use an old container---anything. It's the practice, not the amount, that matters. And that little bit of change can add up to a lot or at least provide a bit of a cushion for later. I now apply that to almost everything, whether I'm down to my last $2 or $2,000. When I see my savings account, I'm empowered to continue to challenge myself to always keep something in there, no matter how "small" the routine deposits might be.
3. Get an accountability partner.
Whether that's a financially savvy friend, partner, YouTube influencer, family member, or Facebook group, find platforms and people that will keep you in check, especially in those tough moments of doubt, fear, and anxiety. Go grocery shopping with them, ask their opinion before you make a purchase, share meals with them, and be sure it's someone (or something) who's really going to hold you accountable in a way that's a fit for your personality, your lifestyle, your financial goals, and their relationship with you.
(For example, if you're still living check to check and are struggling with unhealthy thoughts of comparison, it might not be a good idea to follow those hustle IG pages where everyone is balling out of control, talking about being millionaires all the time and showcasing their material blessings. Hey, if that pushes you to do better, cool, but if you find yourself feeling more insecure than motivated, unfollow and block, sis.)
Another great way to focus on accountability is to start a budgeting or a savings challenge (or join one via a Facebook group or IG page) so you can get the moral support and motivation you need to really take your financial wellness journey seriously.
If none of those are a fit for you, try your local credit union or the bank you have accounts with. Oftentimes, they have professionals you can talk to and who can look through your statements to figure out budgeting, money drains, and gaps.
And if your spending is deeply connected to childhood or other trauma, try counseling. I didn't get to the root of why I spent the way I did, why I had times when I was making good money but still living check to check, and why I would procrastinate and fear debt so much that I'd lose sleep at night until I talked to someone.
4. Figure out what drives your spending habits and get to the core of why you're always broke.
I literally had to use my last dime in order to invest in at least a few sessions with a therapist because I felt like I had nothing more to lose at that point. My spending habits were affecting my mental health because the shame had really taken over.
I'd see friends, family, and former classmates buying homes, expanding their families, and living great lives and always think, "Why am I so miserable and behind? I'm educated, get good jobs, and some of those people make less than me! Is my life going to be like this forever? I'll never get to that high-rise condo, be able to save for retirement, or be in a marriage where we're living great! I'll always be living check to check and scraping at the end of the month just to get groceries!"
I had to get real about my mental health and my family history to get to the root of my spending habits, prideful ways, and scarcity mentality. With the help of a professional and a bit of my own research, I learned how to decatastrophize my thoughts and self-regulate when I wanted to spend based on a negative emotional trigger. I also had to come to terms with immature and reckless behavior and habits related to procrastination, ego, and laziness.
Once I got through that, I realized I'd had several resources at my fingertips (i.e., housing lotteries, public assistance programs, family help, on-the-job advocates, and my own amazing brain) that I'd been neglecting to tap into and that I really was throwing away money and opportunities due to poor planning and low self-esteem. It took a while, and it's not an easy journey, but once you take those steps to get to the core of your why and how, you're better able to see clearly to focus on new habits and sticking to a financial wellness plan that works for you.
5. Brainstorm ways to make extra cash.
I left this one for last because if your money mindset is not healthy or balanced, it doesn't matter how much money you have. Toxic habits are the same whether you have $1 or $1 million, and you can still end up broke even after making lots of money.
That being said, I'm empowered by ideas and writing down solutions, especially as a combat for shame and fear. Solutions allow you to deal with reality, not made-up scenarios or emotions that will not help you get out of certain cycles (i.e., shame or indifference.) If you're broke due to your income and it never seems to be enough, even for your basic necessities of life (i.e., a roof over your head, food, clothing, transportation), it's time to look into how much money you're earning and find ways to earn more.
This doesn't mean you have to take on a third or fourth job (though, in some cases, it might). I'm big on working smarter, not harder, so if there's a side hustle you can do that comes easy to you, and there's a built-in market via your network or professional contacts to do it, do it.
(That's how I started my journey of self-employment. Before I took the leap, I did side gigs in writing, social media management, and editing via referrals from the network I already had as an editor and journalist.) Think strategically about your lifestyle, your work ethic, your current bills, and your mental health in order to figure out a way to make extra cash that won't make your situation even worse.
Go for that promotion, or apply for a new job. Think radically positive and just go for it. When you're broke, the only other way to go is up. Money is fluid---it can be lost and gained like the tide--but it's up to you to empower yourself, face your fears, get to know your triggers and lifestyle goals, and take action so that you can truly start living and stop just surviving day to day. You deserve it, sis. It's your time.
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Featured image via Getty Images