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
Shanice Davis is a writer from New York, dedicated to illuminating women of color and Caribbean culture with her pen. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @alwayshanice.
Unapologetically, Chlöe: The R&B Star On Finding Love, Self-Acceptance & Boldly Using Her Voice
On set inside of a mid-city Los Angeles studio, it’s all eyes on Chlöe. She slightly shifts her body against a dark backdrop amidst camera clicks and whirs, giving a seductive pout here, and piercing eye contact there. Her chocolate locs are adorned with a few jewels that she requested to spice up the look, and on her shoulders rests a jeweled piece that she asked to be turned around to better showcase her neck (“I feel a bit old,” she said of the original direction). Her shapely figure is tucked into a strapless bodysuit with a deep v-neck that complements her décolletage.
Though subtle, her quiet wardrobe directives give the air of a woman who’s been here before, and certainly knows what she’s doing. At 24 years young, she’s a “Bossy” chick in training— one who’s politely unapologetic and learning the power of her own voice.
“I'm hesitant sometimes to truly speak my mind and speak up for myself and what I believe,” she later confessed to me a couple of weeks after the photoshoot. “It's always scary for me, but now I'm realizing that I have to, in order to gain respect as a Black woman— a young Black woman— who's still navigating who she is. And you know, I'm realizing that closed mouths don't get fed. And if I keep my mouth shut just because I'm afraid of what people's opinions of me will be or turn into, then that's not any way to live.”
For Chlöe, the journey into womanhood is about embracing who she is, without succumbing to the perceptions of what others think of her. From the waist up she’s everything you’d imagine. A gorgeous goddess with the kind of sex appeal that some work hard to embrace but fail to exude. But unbeknownst to anyone not on set, her bottom half is covered by a white robe, surprising coming from the girl who boasts “'Cause my booty so big, Lord, have mercy” on her first hit single “Have Mercy.”
But that’s the beauty of Chlöe. There’s more to her than meets the eye. More than what a few sensual photos sprinkled throughout an Instagram feed could ever tell you. Just like the photo-framing illusion of her portrayed from the waist up, what we know about the songstress is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more beneath the surface.
Some hours later Chlöe leans back in a high chair as her locs are transformed from a formal updo to a seemingly Basquiat-inspired one. It’s pure art, and at her request, no wigs are a part of the day’s ensemble. She’s fully embracing her natural hair, a decision that wasn’t always a socially accepted one.
In the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, (Mableton, to be exact) Chlöe began to explore the foundation of her self-image. At an early age she and her younger sister, Halle, demonstrated a vocal prowess and knack for being in front of the camera that caught their parents’ attention. Soon after, they were sent on a parade of local talent shows and auditions, and eventually broke into the digital space with song covers on YouTube.
It was during these early years that Chlöe first learned that the entertainment industry could be unforgiving to those who didn’t fit a particular beauty standard. Despite the then three-year-old snagging a role as the younger version of Beyoncé’s character, Lilly, in Fighting Temptations, casting agents requested that her natural locs be exchanged for more Eurocentric tresses. Ironic, considering that growing up Chlöe saw her hair as no different than that of her peers. “I remember specifically in pre-K we had to do self-portraits and I drew myself with a regular straight ponytail, like how I would put my locs in a ponytail,” she says. “I just never saw myself any different.”
Chlöe would also learn the true meaning of a phrase that would later become an affirmation posted on her bedroom mirror: “Don’t Let the World Dim Your Light.” After attempting to wear wigs to fit in, the Bailey sisters instead chose to rock their locs with pride, which undoubtedly cost them casting roles. Yet they would have the last laugh when making headlines as the “Teen Dreadlocked Duo” who landed a million-dollar contract with Parkwood Entertainment, and the coveted opportunity to be groomed under the tutelage of a world-renowned superstar.
Credit: Derek Blanks
While that could be the end of a beautiful fairytale of self-empowerment, the reality is that it’s just the beginning of the story of her evolution. For most girls, the transition into womanhood takes place in the comfort of their own worlds, often limited to the number of people they allow to have access to them. But for Chlöe, it’s happening in front of millions of critiquing eyes just waiting for an opportunity to either uplift or dissect her through unwarranted commentary.
Many in her position wouldn’t be able to take that kind of pressure. But Chlöe is handling it with grace. “I feel like all of us as humans, we have the right to interpret things how we want,” she says. “I put art out into the world and it's up for interpretation. I'm learning that not everyone is going to always like me and that it's okay.”
Chlöe isn’t the first artist to receive criticism for her carnal content, and she certainly won’t be the last. In 2010, Ciara writhed and rode her way to banishment on BET when the then 24-year-old released her video for “Ride.” In 2006, 25-year-old Beyoncé received backlash for “Déjà Vu."
"I put art out into the world and it's up for interpretation. I'm learning that not everyone is going to always like me and that it's okay.”
So much so that over 5,000 fans signed an online petition demanding that her label re-shoot the video because it was “too sexual.” Even 27-year-old Janet didn’t escape critical headlines when she shed her image of innocence for a more risqué appearance with the 1993 release of janet.
It’s almost as if public reproach is a rite of passage for young Black women R&B singers on the road to stardom. Good girls seemingly “go bad” whenever they embrace the depths of their femininity, and fans only like you on top figuratively. But Chlöe has learned not to bow down to other people’s opinions, but to boss up and control the narrative. As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. If sex appeal is her weapon, she wields it well.
On set, Chlöe exudes the energy of Aphrodite in an apple red, off-shoulder dress with a sexy high split. In between shots, she mouths the lyrics to Yebba’s “Boomerang” as it echoes throughout the space in steady repetition at my recommendation. The hour grows late, yet Chlöe is heating things up as eyes stare in deep mesmerization of the girl on fire.
Credit: Derek Blanks
Through music, she explores the depths of her being, a journey that seems to be, at its foundation, rooted in self-discovery. Whereas their debut album The Kids Are Alright (2018) boasts a young Chloe x Halle empowering their generation to embrace who they are while finding their place in the world, their second album Ungodly Hour (2020) shows the Bailey sisters shedding the veil of innocence for a more unapologetic bravado.
What fans looked forward to seeing is who Chlöe shows herself to be on her debut solo album In Pieces. In an interview with PEOPLE, she confesses that releasing her first project without her sister was “scary.” "It was a moment of self-doubt where I was like, 'Can I do this without my sister?’”
Chlöe has never been shy about sharing her insecurities or her vulnerabilities, all of which are laced throughout the 14-track album. “I want people to have fun when they listen to it and to just realize that they're not alone and it's okay to be vulnerable and raw and open because none of us are perfect; we're all far from it. And I think it's healing when we all admit to that instead of putting up a facade.”
The gift of time has given the self-professed “big lover girl” more encounters with romance and heartbreak. Love songs once sung for their beautiful riffs and melodies become more than just abstract lyrics and are replaced by real-life experiences, which she tells me is definitely in the music.
In her single “Pray It Away,” for example, she contemplates going to God for healing instead of going at her ex-lover for revenge for his infidelities. “With anything dealing with art, I am completely vulnerable,” she says. “I'm completely myself, I'm completely open and transparent. So it's pretty much all of me and who I am right now.”
Has Chlöe been in love? That still remains to be said. Of course, she’s been linked to a few potential baes, but dating in the digital age isn’t as easy as a double tap or drop of a heart-eyes emoji. It requires a level of trust and vulnerability that’s hard to earn, and easy to mishandle. To let her guard down means to potentially set herself up for disappointment. “It’s difficult dating right now, honestly, because you really have to kind of keep your guard up and pay attention to who's really there for you. And you know, I'm such an affectionate person and I love hard.
"So when I meet the one person that I really, really am into, it's hard for me to see any others and I get attached pretty easily. And you know, I don't know, it's…it's a scary thing.”
Credit: Derek Blanks
“With anything dealing with art, I am completely vulnerable. I'm completely myself, I'm completely open and transparent. So it's pretty much all of me and who I am right now.”
While broken hearts yield good music (queue Adele), what’s in Chlöe’s prayer is the desire to be happy. What does that look like? Well, she’s still figuring that out herself. “Honestly, I'm the type of person who I don't truly learn unless I experience it. So it's like I can view and watch my parents and watch the loving relationships that I see in my life and be like, ‘Oh, I want that. I would love to have that.’ But then I also have to experience [love] on my own and see what my flaws or my faults might be or see what my good things about myself are. I feel like it's really all about self-reflection. And even though our base is our family and that's our foundation, we are still our own individuals and we have to find out specifically the things about ourselves that may be different from what we saw from our parents when we were growing up.”
Her ideal beau, she tells me, is someone she can feel safe to be her fun, goofy self with, but who also gives her the space to be the boss chick chasing her dreams. A man who understands that just because the world compliments her doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to hear those words from his lips or feel it in his touch. A bonus if he shows up on set after a long hard day of work with vegan cinnamon rolls. You know, the basic necessities. “I like whoever I'm with to constantly tell me they love me and that I look beautiful because I do the same. I am a very mushy person, and if I see something or you look good, I will never shy away from saying it out loud. And I want whoever I'm with to do the same, be very vocal. Tell me that you love me. Tell me what you love about me because I'm doing the same for you because that's just the person I am.”
Until she meets her match she’s married to the game, and for now, that seems to be perfect matrimony.
Credit: Derek Blanks
On stage at the 2021 American Music Awards, Chlöe solidified her position as a force to be reckoned with. It was a full-circle moment. In 2012, bright-eyed and baby-faced Chloe and Halle would walk onto the set of The Ellen Degeneres Show and blow the audience away as they bellowed out their future mentor’s song. Ellen would present the sisters with tickets to attend the AMAs, assuring them that they would be back and had a promising future. Nine years later, Chlöe descends from the sky cloaked in a snow-white cape and matching midriff-baring bodysuit for her debut performance. It’s the first time she’s graced the stage of the very award show that she was once an audience member of.
As she shakes and shimmies and boom kack kacks out her eight counts, it’s clear that she’s in her element. Just like her VMA performance a couple of months prior, and the many more stages she’ll continue to grace, she brings an energy that has earned her comparisons to the beloved Queen Bey herself. An honorable statement, considering few R&B songstresses are getting accolades for their entertainment capabilities. It’s on these very stages, in front of hundreds of astonished eyes and millions more glued to their televisions at home, that she tells me she feels most sexy. Powerful, even.
But off stage, it’s a different story.
It’s more than just the commentary about her image and media-flamed rumors that get to her. Mentally, she’s in competition with herself. The desire to be the best burns at the back of her mind with every performance, every production, and every time she steps into the booth. Before, she could share the weight of this burden with her sister. Being a part of a duo meant she could turn to Halle for quiet confirmation and encouragement without a word being exchanged. But lately stepping on the stage means stepping out on her own. And despite being a breathtaking, five-time Grammy-nominated star, Chlöe doesn’t escape the reality that sometimes we can be our own worst critics.
Over the last year, she’s been coming to terms with who she is on her own while overcoming the fear of failing to become who she’s destined to be. While the world waits to see how Chlöe wins, the real triumph is in every day that she chooses herself and continues to walk in her purpose. “I don't really have anything all figured out, honestly. But what I try to do, a lot of prayer. I talk to God more and I just try to do things that calm my mind down and just breathe.”
To whom much is given, much will be required. She’s been chosen to walk this path for a reason. Once she fully embraces that everything she’s meant to be is already inside of her, she’ll be an unstoppable force. “My grandma, Elizabeth, she just passed away and my middle name is her [first] name. So I feel like I truly have a responsibility to live up to her legacy that she's left on this earth. I hope I can do that.”
There’s no doubt that she will. With a role in The Fighting Temptations at three years old, a million-dollar record deal, a main role on five seasons of Grown-ish, five Grammy nominations, a number one solo record in Urban and Rhythmic Radio, a debut solo album, and starring roles in recently released movies Praise Thisand Swarm (just to name a few), Chlöe’s certainly already made her mark, and she’s just getting started.
Photographer & Creative Director: Derek Blanks
Executive Producer: Necole Kane
Co-Executive Producer: EJ Jamele
Producer: Erica Turnbull
Digitech: Chris Keller
DP: Alex Nikishin
Gaffer: Simeon Mihaylov
Photo Assistant: Chris Paschal
2nd Photo Assistant: Tyler Umprey
Features Editor: Kiah McBride
Special Projects: Tyeal Howell
Hair: Malcolm Marquez
Makeup: Yolonda Frederick
Fashion Styling: Ashley Sean Thomas
For More: Cover Story: Issa Rae Comes Full Circle
De-Stress & De-Clutter: How To Get Your Work Life Together
Whenever many of us think about spring cleaning, we're likely to address everything but our work lives. But just as it's important to change out those winter coats for spring jackets or organize all those hoarded thrift finds that have multiplied in your spare room's closet (or is that just me?), it's a good idea to clear out the stress, clutter, and disorganization in your work life.
Here are a few things I've done over the years to get on the right track and really bring in a new season of winning, empowered and refreshed:
1. Do a digital detox.
And no, this isn't about fasting from scrolling Instagram for a month. This is all about bulk-deleting those 300 sent e-mails that you no longer need to keep track of. It's about going into your Google inbox and getting rid of all 21,000 of those social media notifications. It's unsubscribing to newsletters that you rarely read (or don't need to be reading during work hours). It's emptying out your digital trash and feeling okay with the fact that you'll never see that old proof-that-I-finished-my-part-of-that-project e-mail you kept from a year ago.
It's about finally printing out the dozens of photos you took on that trip to Mexico two years ago. Delete numbers, photos, and apps from your phone and computers that you no longer use (or want to use). Organize those random files on your desktop into folders and only keep things that are current or super-important to the job that you do.
Since I'm the ultimate e-mail and digital file hoarder, I often do this process in small chunks---a few tasks at a time, over weeks---so that I don't overwhelm myself. Also, if there are files that you just can't part with (especially the large ones taking up space in your inbox or on your computer's hard drive), put them in a Dropbox, Google Drive, or other online file-storage option, invest in an external hard drive, or get a USB stick. Be sure to name files accordingly and utilize organizational tools like folders and bookmarks.
2. Set up automated tasks.
For example, I've found that using email templates is very useful for quickly inputting responses or copy that I repetitively have to type to do the work I do. If I need to send an invoice, I have a template for it, and I can schedule them to go out at the appropriate time. Even for corporate gifting, holiday greetings, correspondences with new writers, client onboarding, scheduling appointments, submitting reports, or other managerial things, I've found ways to automate certain tasks so that I have more time on my hands to focus on the creative aspects of my job.
If you can automate (or schedule) anything, set those up as ahead of time as possible using platforms like Calendly, Asana, or Hubspot. You can even automate your social posts, and it's not the formulaic, restrictive process it used to be.
Anything that you do every day, month, quarter, or year that is a routine that hardly ever changes much should be automated, as it will literally make your workday that much easier.
3. Upgrade your office space with small touches of joy.
For me, this means adding comfort, color, and great memories. I find that when the space I'm working in reflects vibes that make me feel happy, I'm more likely to be productive. Also, since I'm quite tall and work in front of a computer for 80% of my day, I have to be comfortable, so my desk, chair, and other amenities have to accommodate me.
I always keep photos of my family and accomplishments around wherever I'm working (even if it's just my computer's screensaver), something that's in a bright, vivid hue on my desk (like a candle, mug, or picture frame) and an ergonomic desk setup.
If I have to throw out, return, or donate a chair or desk simply because it's no longer comfortable or practical for me, I unapologetically do, no matter when or where I bought it.
I'm also a minimalist when it comes to my office space, as I don't like a lot of books, knickknacks, and other items lingering around that don't have a purpose. Figure out what office vibe and style allows you to work at your best in your office, and if something doesn't align with that, make the necessary adjustments.
4. Do an assessment of your professional life, passions, and goals.
You can liken this to how many who help people get a handle on their closets often start by asking them to assess what clothing they already have in them. Well, in this case, you'd need to just check in with yourself in terms of your current work-life outlook, the things you like about it, what you'd like to achieve in the season that you're in, and what you don't like about any of it. This is helpful because oftentimes, at the core of work-related clutter (both mentally and physically) is a lack of insight into where you are professionally and where you'd like to be. Many of the moves I make in my career start with that---down to the smallest work-related tasks and how I approach completing them.
You don't have to have all the answers, but it's a good idea to at least sit and write a few things down. Write down the processes that stress you out the most and possible solutions. Take some time to find out what type of optimal environment you work best in and how you contribute to the culture of that environment (if at all). What do you love about the everyday things you do at work? What do you dislike? Are there ways of communicating, project management, systems management, or technology processes that could make things easier or more challenging?
There are also online assessments to help you figure out more about how you can maximize your potential at work.
5. Get some help.
Decluttering and purging anything can be quite exhausting and mentally draining, so getting help in the areas where you need it is key.
For the digital detox, for example, I had to seek out someone who knows more about how to streamline things in a way that made sense to me, especially since I handle a lot of documents, emails, and image files that I don't like to get rid of.
Talk with an IT colleague, that one smart, always-organized friend, or even a coach to get the assistance you need for spring-cleaning aspects of your work life that you find challenging to address on your own. By taking things one step at a time and moving forward with a positive goal of shifting the energy in your favor, you'll find solutions that work for you.
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Featured image by Morsa Images/Getty Images