All of Us or None of Us: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Refusal to be Silenced
When you first encounter Gina Prince-Bythewood’s work, you are immediately transported to an alternate universe where Black womanhood is placed on a pedestal. Throughout her career, from her first film, Love & Basketball, to her most recent box office masterpiece, The Woman King, it is within Prince-Bythewood’s directorial artistry that women are courageous, passionate, and fully developed. A departure from stereotypical tropes of Hollywood’s pandering gaze on the marginalization of Black people, she rises above the fray to show us in all of our glory and excellence. It is her Prince-Bythewood trademark-leaving things better than she found them, vastly improved and forever changed, trailblazing new paths for others to follow in her wake. This is no accident and is all by painstaking design.
“Films that center us are the hardest films to get made, but I'm up for the fight. I'm the first audience - this is what I want to see,” Prince-Bythewood begins, reflecting on power dynamics and tokenism in the industry. “What these experiences have taught me [is that] there is this belief that power is being in these spaces where you're the only one because there's so few of us getting those opportunities. But that isn't power to me…real power is being on the [African] continent, surrounded by Black women, telling this story of our history, from our point of view…together.”
Despite being the most challenging film of her career, 2022’s box office smash The Woman King’s powerful impact on Black women and girls was the strength the team needed to persevere. “We all thought, ‘Wow, if I was six or seven or 12, what would life have been like if I had this movie?’” A remarkable story of the Agojie women warriors in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, the film tells how this all-female unit protected the West African kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries. “The fact that we got this done, the fight that it took to get made, and the fact that we all came together as warriors to fight to put this into existence and now the impact that it's had, it really means everything to all of us.”
While much has been said of the unbelievable, gut-wrenching training the actors underwent to get into fighting shape, Prince-Bythewood’s team also faced budgetary and health setbacks due to a new strain of the COVID virus that hit the set. “We had a good budget but needed more.” To lower costs, she began cutting shooting days. “Trying to shoot an epic film like this and needing a few more days made every day tough because it was a race to get everything done. I didn't want to feel that on this one, but because my actors were so dope - you're working with Viola [Davis], Thuso [Mbedu], Lashana [Lynch], and Sheila [Atim] - they didn't need 10-11 takes.”
Just as shooting was ramping up, the Omicron strain of COVID hit during the 2021 holiday season. While they had been isolated in the fairly remote KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, where they were shooting many of the jungle scenes, they had to return to Cape Town to finish more coastal scenes. Just three weeks into shooting, Omicron reared its ugly head. “After about a week, one case popped up on a Saturday. And then on Monday, it was six, and then on Tuesday, it was 21, and we realized we had to shut down for the safety of everyone. That was really scary.” Questions began swirling, and she had to do a gut check. “Was the studio going to shut us down to cut their losses? Was Omicron going to keep going up and make it impossible to return fully?” Remaining in limbo those few weeks, waiting for the other shoe to drop, was a special torture all its own. “It just hurt me to the core because I knew the quality of material we had been getting. And my editor Teri Shropshire was telling me, ‘We've never seen footage like this before, and we've never seen characters like this before.’”
Prince-Bythewood made the tough decision to wait out the shutdown, choosing to remain in Cape Town while believing that none of her team’s hard work would be in vain. “There was something I felt psychologically that if I left I wasn't going to come back.” Her attitude was contagious, as other cast members, including Viola Davis, remained. The director’s family visited during this time, helping instill more optimism and encouragement into the project. “Thankfully, South Africa handled it really well, Omicron numbers went down quickly, and we got to come back. Albeit, differently.” Because they had lost so much time and budget, background actors were reduced-dramatic fight scenes that called for 1,000 had now decreased to a mere 200. “That was really difficult, but we put our heads together and were creative.”
To officially nail the fight scenes took extraordinary hard work and training for the actors. “It was extraordinary and surreal what they did - the amount of hours and the amount of months they trained. It showed up on screen not only physically but also in the sisterhood from training like that.” Prince-Bythewood was aware of the necessity that it would pay off in dividends to build chemistry and bond the team. “To have that show up on the screen in a real way because these real friendships have been formed and this care and love for each other was cultivated, was super hard, but super great at the same time.”
This spirit of collaboration and community is interwoven throughout everything she does. Retaining ownership of our narratives is protecting the culture and each other. “This is the messaging that I've started to share with my fellow filmmakers and actors. There is a swelling of needing to be a collective and a force within this industry. And you do that by coming together, working with each other, supporting each other, lifting each other. That's what we need. I have done it, but I'm being much more vocal about it now.”
And vocal she is! In the wake of The Woman King’s rollout, Prince-Bythewood was lauded with praise, accolades, and rave reviews from critics everywhere. Here locally, she was honored in early 2023 by the Black Business Association at their 20th annual Salute to Black Women Conference, earning the Pinnacle of Excellence Award. After sweeping the award shows with numerous nominations and wins, it was a glaring omission when the Academy Awards refused to acknowledge the film. The Woman King was shut out despite A+ ratings, $100 million at the global box office, and an all-star cast. Prince-Bythewood courageously used her platform to speak out publicly via The Hollywood Reporter, calling out the entire institution that dared to ignore and discredit the hard work so many had invested into the film. Immediately following, the Academy’s President, Bill Kramer, was in touch directly.
“Thankfully, me doing that [Hollywood Reporter] interview sparked a lot of conversation with a lot of people sharing it and acknowledging that this is a real problem.” She paused to reflect on the significance of social capital, of having influential industry peers willing to advocate for more inclusive practices. “Thankfully [it hasn’t been] just people who look like me… [Black people] are often asked to fix a problem that is not of our making. So Bill reached out to meet, and I talked to him about some of my ideas and, in exchange, heard a desire to really get at this.” The next steps are quite clear for her. “How can we come at it in the right way because it's a systemic issue? There's gonna be a lot of conversations and a lot of work done over the summer because it has to get fixed for the Academy to stay relevant.”
Art is an imitation of life, and in Prince-Bythewood’s world, Black women’s limitations are restricted to only the ones they create for themselves. There is space for both love and career, for family and ambition. “I have it. I know the career doesn't mean as much if you don't have someone to share it with.” These are not competing interests but mutually exclusive components of a fully-realized self and identity. “Without the career, I wouldn't be happy. [Directing] is what I love, and that has to do with both in terms of loving your spouse but also children as well. So I wanted to put that in the world, that you can have both.” The critically-acclaimed director prides herself on honoring Black womanhood, family, and professional endeavors. “There's so many tropes - you see women who are aspiring to be someone on a career path, and they make the choice to give it all up for love. We shouldn't have to do that. So, absolutely the way I move through my personal life, I hope I can put it on screen and inspire other women.”
“And men too. After watching my films, I hope they see how to be supportive of women who aspire to do great things.”