Gina Prince-Bythewood On Beyond the Lights, and Dismantling the “Black Film” Genre

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Anyone expecting Gina Prince-Bythewood’s follow-up to Love & Basketball to be another Love & Basketball—with pop stars instead of sport stars—will be pleasantly disappointed. And although the director describes her own film as a love story, anyone expecting a mere romance will, again, be pleasantly disappointed. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a talented, rising star who grew up singing Nina Simone, but finds herself getting stripped down (literally), and auto-tuned up to have a career—one in which her mother (played by Minnie Driver) often has the final say. Nate Parker plays a police officer heading towards the political career laid out for him carefully and laboriously by his father (played by Danny Glover). Oh yes, these lovers are star-crossed, but the complexities explored in the journey of their relationship is what makes Beyond the Lights one of the most compelling and audacious movies of the year.

Prince-Bythewood has given us a pulsating, exquisitely intense cinematic experience, with a critique of the pop music industry and the political landscape—both of which require its participants to sell themselves to the public, often selling off a bit (or more) of their souls in the process.

These are powerful messages for a romantic film, and Prince-Bythewood is the right director to deliver them. She’s been fighting for years to tell the story she wanted, in a film industry where such a feat is incredibly difficult to accomplish for all directors. It’s even more problematic for a black director, looking to make a movie with black characters, all while fighting against the “black film” marginalization. Paste caught up with Gina Prince-Bythewood to talk about her unique position as a writer/director, the incredible Mbatha-Raw/Parker chemistry, and how she got Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love for that one scene everyone’s talking about.

Paste Magazine: I can appreciate the title change, but I think I’ll always think of this film as Blackbird. Was it hard for you to let go of the original name?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, it was crushing. It had been Blackbird for four years, and a title is just as important as a character’s name. The title was a part of the DNA, and it’s what it should be called. So it was extremely tough. When we were told that there was this other independent film out there with the same name, and there was confusion, we reached out to them to see if we could buy the name. But their movie was based on a book with the same name, so they had the copyrights, and we had to give up the fight. But Beyond the Lights makes sense, and that is what the film is about. I’m not mad at it, but Blackbird is engrained in me (laughs).

Paste: The opening scene in the hair salon really surprised me, and also spoke to me. I thought it was such a specific experience to know and understand. And then I listened to your NPR story, and it made perfect sense. Can you talk about incorporating some of those personal elements about life as a transracial adoptee into the story?
Prince-Bythewood: I was raised by a great couple—mother was El Salvadorian and German, father was white. They’ve been great parents, and incredibly supportive. Growing up was tough, because we grew up in an all-white area, and not having any sort of reflected image really wrecked my self-esteem. As much love as they gave me, it’s tough standing out that much. Part of the issue was hair. They used a comb, and not a pick—so combing my hair was a hellish experience, and my hair looked crazy! (laughs) I had three ponytails—two on the side, and one on the top. I grew up hating my curls. I wanted straight hair like my sisters, who were both white. I just wanted to look different, and so I really wanted to put that in the film. Noni is a little girl who’s being told at such an early age that who she is, is not good enough, and needs to be fixed. [It’s about] what that can do to your self-esteem, especially when that’s coming from your own mother. So that scene in Mexico is about Noni going back to that little girl in the mirror, and loving what she sees for the first time.

Paste: I know you started the script years ago. Can you remember the first scene you wrote?
Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely. It was their first kiss. I kept rewriting that scene, and it was actually my favorite scene as a writer. I have a different favorite scene, now that it’s been shot. But that was my favorite scene from the writing process.

Paste: What’s your favorite scene now?
Prince-Bythewood: My favorite scene now is the one in the kitchen [between Noni and Macy Jean] at the end of the movie. As a director, watching two great actors just feed off each other was great. It was also Gugu and Minnie’s favorite scene.

As a writer/director it was also interesting because, at first, that scene was missing an element. Going into shooting that day I kept saying “Something is missing from the scene.” And then I realized as I was getting to set, at the core of what Noni’s issue is with her mother—what hurt her the most—is the fact that she was on the balcony, and her mother never got her help. That was not addressed in the scene originally, and as I got to set I changed the dialogue. I was so excited to add it in, and the actors got it immediately. And that’s why I love being a writer/director because I can fix things like that.
Paste: That scene also reminded me of Love & Basketball, where we see a daughter confronting her mother and saying, “You’ve disappointed me.”
Prince-Bythewood: Yes, exactly.

Paste: Let’s talk about casting. I’ve told you before, I love Nate Parker. Now I’m just obsessed. And this character just felt like a perfect mesh of some of his other roles. What did you see in him when he first auditioned?
Prince-Bythewood: He actually didn’t audition. We’d worked together on The Secret Life of Bees, and I’d seen The Great Debaters, and like most people I thought, “Who is that guy?” As a director, you’re always looking for new faces, and he was exciting! So we worked together on The Secret Life of Bees, and he just dove in. He’s so protective of his characters, but he’s also so giving as an actor. I just loved working with him. While writing this, I had a very short list, and he was on it. I thought he could embody this character. I needed a man that had a very strong sense of integrity, but also wouldn’t come off as soft— but I needed him to have that vulnerability. I watched Arbitrage, and that’s what sold me completely.

I had him read with Gugu when I was trying to sell her to the first studio. I called Nate to ask him if he’d do me a favor, and give a live read with her, but I knew that my ulterior motive was to see the two together, and to see their chemistry together. But I also wanted the studio to see them, because I’d pitched them on Nate, and they said “No.” In that audition where he was helping me out, I just could not stop watching those two together! They’d just met, and you felt that crackle. The studio said “No” to Gugu because she wasn’t a star at the time—that’s a whole other story—but when I finally got it set up at Relativity, there was no audition for Nate. We just talked about the characters, and I told him that I needed him to go there, and to give me everything. He said, “Absolutely,” and because he’d done it on [The Secret Life of Bees], I trusted him.

Paste: Your name came up the other night while I was tweeting with Black Girl Nerds during a podcast. One of the co-hosts is a big fan of yours, and she suggested I ask you about transitioning from TV to film, and whether or not you’d consider a return to TV.
Prince-Bythewood: TV was such a great training ground for me. I was very fortunate to have gone right from film school to A Different World. Going to work every day with three black women running the show made it normal for me. Later, I worked with J.J. Abrams, which was amazing. I learned a lot from him. I love TV! My So-Called Life was one of my favorite shows growing up. I love writing it, because I loved watching it. But ultimately, I knew I wanted to get into directing. I wanted that big canvas, so I left after five years.

I will do TV again eventually. I’m actually writing a pilot now, but I’d never attach myself to a show that’s expected to do 22 episodes over five years. I just couldn’t do that. But with TV now, it’s great because you can create shorter seasons, or you can be on the peripheral.

Paste: We need to talk about the airplane scene. That had to be the most amazing use of Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love that I’ve seen yet. Where did this idea come from?
Prince-Bythewood: Kaz’s fear of planes is definitely my thing—I have to be knocked out to get on a plane. So, I thought that would be an interesting fear for him to have, as somebody who has to be in control all of the time. But I also hoped it would be an unexpected thing, with him being strong. And I thought Noni would be shocked by that, so I connected it in the scene, as something that she could give him, while also using this fantasy.

When we were in post, there was another song in there. Then Beyoncé’s album—as you know—dropped from out of nowhere. I heard Drunk in Love, and I was like, “Ah!” I love that song. I decided to just put it in the scene, even though I knew we could never afford it. We put it in there, and it just worked. So I said, “Let’s just keep it on for the previews, and then I know that we’ll have to find something else.” But I was just praying that it would have a great response, and the studio would see that. And in the previews—Oh my gosh—when that song went on, people were just applauding in the theatre as it was happening. The studio saw that, and—props to them—they stepped up, and paid for Beyoncé. And it is expensive (laughs).

I equate it to the Maxwell song for Monica and Quincy in Love & Basketball—it’s that perfect song for the moment.

Paste: Let’s talk about your desire to eliminate the term “black film.” I wrote a bit about Starred Up this year, and I agree that this phrase marginalizes many films. A similar thing happens with so-called black TV. I’m thinking of shows like Being Mary Jane, or black-ish. What else needs to be done to create true diversity in film and TV?
Prince-Bythewood: That’s just it. When we allow Hollywood to have “black film” as a genre it limits us. They do one film a year with a black cast, and that’s their black film. I want us in every genre—sci-fi, romance, period pieces—that is really my fight. To make it more normal to open up casts, and you’re seeing it more in television than in film. A show like Scandal is not a black show. It’s a political show, with Kerry Washington at the head. That’s what I want more in film. Beyond the Lights is a love story. There are black people at the helm, and that’s important. It’s important for our community. But it’s important for the world to see, because there’s this misconception around the world that black people don’t love each other; black people don’t marry each other.

I remember going into Relativity, and they said this would be the first film under their “Urban banner,” and I said, “No, this is not that.” And they ultimately changed their name, and now it’s the “multicultural division.” And I much prefer that. I want to stop those limits that Hollywood has on us.

Paste: Agreed. This has been such an honor. Thank you!
Prince-Bythewood: Thanks so much.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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