Four minutes into The Old Guard, released this summer on Netflix, Charlize Theron’s character Andi savors a piece of baklava and pinpoints exactly where it came from:
“Hazelnut, not walnut. The Black Sea. Rosewater. Pomegranate. Eastern Turkey?”
She’s right, of course – anyone who has eaten baklava for 6,000 years has learned a thing or two about its ingredients. I myself am not a particular fan of walnuts, but hazelnuts are a different matter. I’m not a fan of action films either, and I was skeptical about this one, considering the first fight scene features the main characters getting slaughtered in a hailstorm of bullets. But, after the baklava scene, I was all in – maybe I should have called this piece, “Gina Prince-Bythewood, you had me at baklava.”
Prince-Bythewood’s latest feature has earned her praise from critics and audiences alike. Looking at her previous films, you might not expect an action film to have drawn her interest, but she was eager to tackle it. She brings the same aesthetic qualities to The Old Guard that characterize her previous films: a keen attention to detail, an intimate focus on relationships, and an authentic representation of larger social issues. Prince-Bythewood’s oeuvre challenges Hollywood norms with its focus on female protagonists and their unique struggles to stay true to themselves amidst intense external pressure. Her characters find strength in their relationships with others, drawing support from the intimacy and honesty that these connections provide. Moreover, they are full, rounded characters who are not simply eye candy for viewers – they sweat, cry, laugh, and love – and do it with style. Much like Prince-Blythewood herself.
As the first Black woman to direct a big-budget comic book film ($70 million), Prince-Bythewood was under a lot of pressure. In interviews, she recognizes her debt to Patty Jenkins, a pioneer for her work on the 2017 Wonder Woman. The first woman to direct a big-budget action film, Jenkins broke through one of Hollywood’s glass ceilings. As a Black woman in Hollywood, Prince-Bythewood demonstrates the power of seeing from a different perspective; she brings her embodied knowledge to each of her projects. She has revitalized every genre she has worked in – romantic comedy, sports movie, melodrama, music biopic, and action film. Her distinctive vision and personal insights have made her a pioneering feminist auteur for a new generation of Hollywood, what I might call New Millennium Hollywood.
Adapted from the 2017 Image comics series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, The Old Guard tells the story of a group of immortal fighters who are working to save the planet. While this plot might sound familiar, these are no Marvel superheroes. They are real people whose only superpower is their immortality. They are flawed, sensitive, and vulnerable like the rest of us – they just heal faster.
Charlize Theron’s Andi (Andromache of Scythia) is the leader of the pack and Kiki Layne (recently seen in Barry Jenkins’s gorgeous If Beale Street Could Talk) plays Nile, the new, reluctant recruit. Nile is a Marine who is killed by an insurgent in Afghanistan and when she revives she needs a lot of convincing to come to terms with her new path.
One of the first scenes Prince-Bythewood shot was an early fight sequence on a helicopter, where Nile resists Andi’s explanation of her reincarnation and all that it entails. Both actors had to train hard for the film and Prince-Bythewood wanted to shoot this intense action scene when they were in shape and pumped up. Staged in the tight confines of a helicopter cargo bed, the two exchange powerful blows and contort themselves into gymnastic positions. The fight choreography is elaborate and impressive. But most important is the budding relationship between the two characters: as the fight proceeds, each begins to gain respect for the other, as each is relentless in her determination. Shot with handheld cameras, the cinematography puts the viewer right in the middle of the action so we can feel the transition from tension to begrudging acceptance to mutual admiration.
The other members of the team are Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). Joe and Nicky are former enemies (Muslim vs. Christian, who fought against each other in the Crusades) who become lovers in their immortality. Prince-Bythewood portrays their relationship with exquisite tenderness. For example, when they have been captured and are strapped into chairs beside each other for experimentation, they recall a wonderful vacation they took together. This shared memory offers escape and sanctuary from their current danger. The diverse cast offers another new twist on the comic book film, but thankfully the casting doesn’t feel forced.
Andi and Booker have a particularly fraught relationship – he is her “right-hand man,” but his loyalties are questioned. Having known each other for centuries, they have been through a lot together and their weariness is showing. In flashbacks, we see what the characters have lost – friends, family members, and lovers. Andi’s first partner Quynh was sentenced to die over and over, locked in an iron maiden at the bottom of the sea. The film measures immortality in the lives lost and relationships it costs; rather than a blessing, it seems to be a curse. In an early scene, Andi watches TV news coverage of wars, hostage situations, and other global violence, seeing it all as a personal failure.
The close attention to relationships and their complexity adds richness to this familiar genre. Prince-Bythewood said that she wanted to make a fantasy-action-comic book film whose characters feel grounded. They do. They are thickly-drawn and multi-dimensional; their relationships with each other are believable and complicated – believable because they are complicated. This depth of character development is echoed in the staging of the film. Prince-Bythewood shot many of the fight scenes in a series of longer takes, set back from the action, rather than quick cuts. This editing style allows us to see the team interact with each other, support each other, and skillfully manage their enemies.
Prince-Bythewood shot the film in a tight 63 days, but it took nine months to get everyone into shape and ready. The intensity of the preparation and the shoot were new for Prince-Bythewood in the Hollywood setting, but as a former athlete, she had the stamina. Her success with the film is evident, as Netflix has green-lit the second installment.
She has come a long way from her early days writing for “A Different World,” where she forged connections with other Black industry professionals that have helped her advance to feature film production. Spike Lee produced her first feature, Love & Basketball (2000), which has become a cult classic, particularly among basketball players. Prince-Bythewood played the sport herself, and the film is semi-autobiographical in its focus on a young woman’s coming of age as an athlete and a woman. Sanaa Lathan plays Monica, who grows up next door to Quincy (Omar Epps). They eventually fall in love and both attend UCLA where they play basketball.
The film traces their contrasting trajectories as Monica develops into a skilled player and Quincy gets injured. Throughout, Prince-Bythewood focuses on the differences between them, rooted in gender and social norms. For example, Monica is told to curb her temper on the court, while Quincy’s spirited play is rewarded. Particularly powerful is the contrast between the men’s and the women’s basketball programs. The men play in a large, well-appointed auditorium, in front of a packed house. The women play in a small, dingy gym with a few spectators in the bleachers. Prince-Bythewood cuts between the games to emphasize the discrepancy. Despite the unequal institutional structure, Monica develops into a strong player, which ends up ruining her relationship with Quincy. Her success poses a challenge for him – as he is forced to give up the game, she goes on to play in a European league.
Love & Basketball was turned down by several studios, described as “too soft,” as the director tells it. She workshopped the film at the Sundance Directors Lab, where it got the attention of a producer from Forty Acres and a Mule. It was eventually made for around $15 million with New Line Cinema, the indie arm of Warner Bros. Although made on a smallish budget, it feels like a big-budget film. Prince-Bythewood’s production design is spot-on and she perfectly captures the dramatic excitement of the athletic contests. In the climactic tournament game, the director herself makes an appearance as a player on the opposing team who challenges Monica for the ball, diving straight into the camera. This sly cameo is an apt metaphor for Prince-Bythewood’s personal trajectory from ballplayer to filmmaker, fighting hard all the way.
The big game moments are exciting, but the intimate moments with Monica and Quincy make the film. Their relationship develops from youthful crush to high school sweethearts to mature adults with complex lives. Prince-Bythewood captures Monica’s first time with Quincy; it is a tender scene, filmed with no hint of lasciviousness, which is rare in Hollywood cinema. Later Monica watches Quincy through the bedroom window gathering up his belongings to move in with his fiancé. When she finally understands that she wants him back, they play basketball for her heart (an actual game of one-on-one in the driveway). New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis describes the ending as “a utopian feminist argument for a life enriched by love and by work.” The title of the film reflects Monica’s dual commitments, neither of which she is willing to sacrifice.
For her second feature, Prince-Bythewood was supposed to direct an adaptation of the Wally Lamb novel, I Know This Much is True (now an HBO mini-series starring Mark Ruffalo). Fox, which had the material at the time, demanded a more high-profile cast and the result was that Prince-Bythewood was dropped from the project. Although this was a bitter setback, it made the filmmaker all the more determined to prove herself in Hollywood.
After a hiatus from the big screen, she took on another adaptation project, The Secret Life of Bees (2008), based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Made by Fox Searchlight, the film cost $11 million and featured a high-profile cast. Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Hudson appear alongside Sophie Okonedo and Dakota Fanning. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith were producers of the film, which no doubt helped recruit such luminaries to the project.
A period piece, set in the summer of 1964 in South Carolina, the film was shot in the winter in rural North Carolina. The costumes, props, and set design play a crucial role in the film, in particular, the bees. The Boatwright family owns a honey business and for the film, Latifah, Fanning, and Tristan Wilds, who played Zach, a family friend, took lessons in working with the bees. All of the bee scenes, except an opening CGI sequence, were real. Music was also important to the characters and for setting the tone. Keys (who plays June) learned to play the cello in four weeks — which seems incredible until you think about the musical genius we’re talking about).
Lily (Fanning) runs away to the Boatwright’s farm after finding a memento that belonged to her mother, who died when she was little. Her housekeeper, Rosaleen (Hudson) comes along with her because she has run afoul of the local white authority figures for trying to register to vote. Rosaleen is beaten and locked in a hospital and Lily breaks her out. The Boatwright women minister to Lily’s bruised psyche and welcome her into their family (over June’s initial objections). Rosaleen too becomes a member of the family and is given an honorary Boatwright name, July. Rosaleen’s political statement is echoed by Zach, who takes Lily to the movies and is beaten and kidnapped. These plot details anchor the film in its time period, but also pierce us with their continued relevance. Voter suppression is still an issue over fifty years later.
When it was released, some critics found the film maudlin and accused it of sentimentality. This reaction seems to be largely based on the idyllic quality of the Boatwright farm and the film’s Southern charm. The plot itself is far from sentimental, in fact, it is downright violent and has a melancholy tone that creeps up on you toward the end. The film never sensationalizes the events that lead to pain and death.
Prince-Bythewood’s strength as a director is the authenticity with which she depicts relationships. In The Secret Life of Bees, the relationships between her female characters are the focus and they are beautifully-drawn. She shows their flaws as they wrestle with life’s challenges and the sisters each display strengths and talents. Although the cinematography is sun-spotted and blurry with dandelion fuzz, its romantic quality is driven by the narrative, showing us the world through Lily’s eyes. The film is true to what an impressionable fourteen-year-old would see and feel. She idolizes the Boatwrights for the connection they had with her mother and the peaceful sanctuary they provide her. When society’s ills invade this refuge, the film portrays the negative results, not only for Rosaleen, but for May Boatwright (Okonedo) as well. Each woman has to wrestle with her identity as a member of the family and the larger community. Like her other films, The Secret Life of Bees showcases Prince-Bythewood’s skill at rendering embodied experiences and individual perspectives.
Prince-Bythewood’s 2014 feature, Beyond the Lights, was both written and directed by her. Several major studios turned the project down – SONY wanted Beyoncé to play the lead role and also wanted to cast a white actor as the male lead. Prince-Bythewood lobbied for then-unknown Gugu Mbatha-Raw to play the protagonist, Noni. She also stuck to her original choice of Nate Parker for Kaz. As a result, the film was ultimately distributed by BET and Relativity Media.
The story of a young singer and her rise to fame, Beyond the Lights addresses timely issues surrounding self-worth, celebrity and social media culture, and the role of female singers in the pop music industry. Noni and Kaz are brought together when he is acting as security outside her hotel room and ultimately dissuades her from committing suicide. Despite coming from two very different worlds, they start a relationship and Noni begins to question her career trajectory. Her mother (Minnie Driver), is a kind of Gypsy Rose Lee for the 21st century. She has pushed her since Noni was a child and manages her career with an iron fist. Their relationship is revealed in an opening scene when Noni sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a school talent show, but loses to a glammed-up tap dancer. Noni’s mother orders her to ditch the second-place trophy, despite Noni’s obvious pride in winning it, asking her: “Do you want to be a winner or do you want to be a loser?” This relentless push to be on top continues with her mother forcing Noni into compromising positions with a misogynistic white rapper, topless photoshoots, and degrading music videos.
Perhaps the most pointed critique of gender politics in the music industry comes in the scene of a live performance at an awards show where Noni is singing back-up for Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly), and refuses to undress, as was planned. He pushes her down on a bed, which is part of the performance set, and proceeds to mock rape her in front of the cheering audience. I found this scene hard to watch on film and it is impossible for Kaz to watch it in person. He storms onto the stage and punches the rapper.
This incident precipitates Noni and Kaz’s flight from LA to Mexico, where they rent a room by the ocean and hide, much like Lily’s retreat to the Boatwright farm. Beyond the lights, Noni uncovers her real self beneath the layers of put-on glamour required by the industry (and her mother). In a short but powerful scene in the bathroom, Noni takes out her weave, removes her false eyelashes, and washes off her make-up. She presents herself to Kaz in all of her natural beauty and he is overwhelmed with emotion. Prince-Bythewood has said she wanted the transformation scene to be even longer; they shot footage of Noni removing her artificial nails one by one, but it does not appear in the film.
In their retreat by the sea, Noni is reborn as a more authentic version of herself, and a video of her singing “Blackbird” at a cantina karaoke goes viral. This social media mishap leads her mother (and the press) to her doorstep, but it also shows her that she does not have to contort herself into an unrecognizable person to achieve success. The final scene finds Noni at a large outdoor concert, singing one of her original songs, styled in a more natural look and perfectly content. Kaz shows up and she brings him onstage – embracing him as she embraces her true self.
Music plays a pivotal role in Beyond the Lights, which features songs by Beyoncé, Rita Ora, and India.Arie. The soundtrack functions almost as an additional character in all of Prince-Bythewood’s films. Love & Basketball uses R&B and hip-hop music to evoke the 1980s. The Secret Life of Bees features music from the 1960s, original songs by Alicia Keys and India. Arie, as well as classical music, which is played in the Boatwright home. As an auteur, Prince-Bythewood uses music to establish character and mood, to draw the viewer into her films, and to elevate the voices of Black artists.
Beyond the Lights was shot in 29 days on a budget of just over $7 million. Despite her success as a filmmaker, Gina Prince-Bythewood has worked with steadily declining budgets, which is why the thought of $70 million for The Old Guard was both exhilarating and terrifying for her. But the chance to direct a large-budget action film was one she could not pass up – not only for the important “first,” but also because the script spoke to her. Prince-Bythewood talks about how each of the films she has made feels personal to her, speaks to something about her own journey as a woman. Whether it is trying to find her place as a young girl, her college years as a ballplayer, her struggle to gain acceptance in Hollywood, or her push to expand her career, she has served as a role model for others. As she brings her own experiences and perspectives into her films, she connects with people on a very personal level.
All of Prince-Bythewood’s films feature Black female characters who are multi-dimensional, authentic, deeply thoughtful, and complex. Nile, Monica, the Boatwrights, and Noni challenge stereotypical Hollywood representations of Black women. They add more nuanced characters to the (still short) list of Black women on screen, and provide richer characterization than even award-winning examples like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (still the only Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, in 2002). Prince-Bythewood’s success shows that diverse audiences will watch films featuring well-drawn Black characters in engaging stories.
Gina Prince-Bythewood is part of a new generation of Black women filmmakers who are pushing Hollywood forward. Along with Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Kasi Lemmons, and Viola Davis, Prince-Bythewood is making work that audiences are hungry for – films that bring original perspectives and voices to the forefront.
JENNIFER L. GAUTHIER is a professor of media and culture at Randolph College in Southwestern Virginia. Her media commentary can be found on Pop Matters.com and The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture. She has poems published or forthcoming in Tiny Seed Literary Journal, South 85, Gyroscope Review, Nightingale & Swallow, River River, The Bookends Review, little somethings press, and HerWords Magazine. Her poetry collection, naked: a chapbook of poetry inspired by remarkable women, was recently chosen as third runner-up in the New Women’s Voices poetry competition sponsored by Finishing Line Press.