EXCLUSIVE | Gina Prince-Bythewood on the need for women, black people to be represented in film

The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood, on set. Image supplied by Netflix
The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood, on set. Image supplied by Netflix
  • The Old Guard is a Sci-Fi Action film, starring South African born actress Charlize Theron, who plays the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries, including 'If Beale Street Could Talk' breakout star Kiki Layne, as the newest soldier to join their ranks.
  • It's based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Greg Rucka and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who is most notably known for the classic movie, Love & Basketball. This is her first Netflix film.
  • Speaking to W24's Afika Jadezweni, Gina Prince-Bythewood addressed the portrayals of women in film, representation of women and black people behind the scenes, and creating opportunities for the new guard. 

My interview with highly acclaimed film director Gina Prince-Bythewood, came at a time when the hot topic of representation reached boiling point, as industries clambered in search of black figures to front them after decades of pretending they don't exist. 

As the director of one of the most referenced films about black romance - Love & Basketball - as well as the 2008 film depicting the warmth of black sisterhood - The Secret Life of Bees; Gina was therefore a most fitting subject for this conversation. Her work not only validates black experiences outside of the struggle narrative, but it creates new ones. And as audiences watch through her lens, they see a new perspective. 

READ MORE: 8 women filmmakers who've given us stories and roles that have never been seen before   

For her latest project, Gina set out to put a different lens on the male-dominated Sci-Fi/Action genre as we know - and bemoan - it. As a first-time action drama director, she says; "What attracted me to this film [was the opportunity] to redefine what it means to be female, normalising that women are warriors, that women are courageous, that women can be badass, women have a voice."

"I've done movies of many genres, but I feel like that's the overriding message of this one. For [The Old Guard], it spoke to all those things - a beautiful action drama with two women at the head of it. And to be able to tell that story is important to me. Also, women trying to find their purpose is something that so many of us can identify with," she adds. 

THE OLD GUARD (L to R) Director GINA PRINCE-BYTHEW

I'll be the first to serve some candour here, and say if you absolutely want to hide something from me, put it in an Action and Sci-Fi film. However, two things attracted to me to this particular one (aside from the fact that watching it would grant me an opportunity to speak to the director of one of my all time favourite movies); one - a black woman director, and two - a woman lead who isn't merely an accessory to just another testosterone-and-gratuitous-action entertainment offering. I swear sometimes you can smell the D&G Light Blue aftershave through the silver screen.  

Although still featuring several male characters, The Old Guard - much like that D&G Light Blue - is a fresher take on the genre. 

About The Old Guard

Led by a warrior named Andy (Charlize Theron), a covert group of tight-knit mercenaries with a mysterious inability to die have fought to protect the mortal world for centuries. But when the team is recruited to take on an emergency mission and their extraordinary abilities are suddenly exposed, it's up to Andy and Nile (KiKi Layne), the newest soldier to join their ranks, to help the group eliminate the threat of those who seek to replicate and monetise their power by any means necessary. Based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard is a gritty, grounded, action-packed story that shows living forever is harder than it looks. 

'Normalising women as warriors is absolutely important and necessary'

With that said, our telephone conversation inevitably fast-forwarded to the part where we discuss portrayals of women in film. Considering that this upcoming movie heralds the badass woman narrative, I ask Gina if our progression from "pretty woman" to "badass boss" is not still prescriptive to how women should be.

A rose by another name, perhaps - where we now also not only appreciate its thorns, but we suggest that its beauty should be defined by those thorns first. 

Gina's badass approach is of a different prescription. 

"I think girls are raised in a way that is not conducive to believing in our power and strength, so saying 'courageous or badass' doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be a fighter physically, but a fighter emotionally too - fighting for what you want, fighting to have a voice, to be heard," she says as she explains that being a badass doesn't mean the rejection of softness - it's actually an integral part of it.

"That for me is courageous and badass."

READ MORE: We talk to 2 strong leads from the new Netflix series that's all about badass women 

"This is exemplified in the physicality, but again normalising women as warriors is absolutely important and necessary. 

"The difference with boys is that everything they watch shows them as heroes. If girls saw more of that growing up, it would absolutely change our mindsets - it could change how women think of themselves and each other, and it can ultimately change the world," she adds. 

THE OLD GUARD - Charlize Theron (Andy); Kiki Layne

Rewriting action

When I ask - in not so many words - what action movie stereotypes she hoped to change in this movie by having two women as leads, she chuckles briefly before saying that she never wanted it to be a case whereby, if she cast Andy and Nile as men, one wouldn't notice the difference.

"They are women. Their reactions to things, their feelings are indicative of who they are," the director says. 

"There was one thing that was important for me to bring to the story that wasn't in the graphic novel, and that was... our characters kill people, but their mentality is 'take a life to save many', but in the action genre it is portrayed that when characters kill, it's not a big deal. They usually have some humorous quip after they kill somebody for this badass moment," she explains.

"For me, what I want to bring is the reality of what it means to take a life, and the fact that it does affect the character - most notably Andy and Nile. In the research that I did, taking a life was as detrimental to the psyche as the fear of losing your life when you're a soldier in war. I felt that was an important thing to bring to the story and these characters," Gina says. 

Gina Prince-Bythewood's other vision with this film adaptation was to speak to the idea of purpose, and she did that through Charlize's character, Andy.

"She is a woman who has lost her sense of purpose. I think that is important for me as a person and as a filmmaker. Having a purpose gives you a drive and a vision, so I felt it necessary to put that into Andy's character," she says.

'To be able to look up on screen and see myself reflected in a heroic way would've been everything for me'

For Kiki's character (Nile), it was about interrogating self-(re)discovery and identity. Of course, representation would come into play with this character too.

"We have a young black woman who is a hero in a story like this. That's so rare and so necessary - I wish I had her when I was a little girl," Gina says with light in her voice. "To be able to look up on screen and see myself reflected in a heroic way would've been everything for me. What Kiki brings to the character is such a beautiful combination of vulnerability and strength and who is wondering why she's been given this gift." 

THE OLD GUARD (L to R) KIKI LAYNE, Director GINA P

Representation on - and behind - the screen 

Before I directly ask what representation means to Gina and her catalogue of work, I mention her Variety guest column that I read where she shared anecdotes about how young black people had been moved by her work.

She mentions that a 17-year-old black boy "wrote that the film taught him how to love".

"I am continually humbled by the number of female athletes of all races who are inspired by the film. At a festival screening of Beyond the Lights, a 40-year-old black man spoke of the pride he felt watching the innate goodness of the black male character."

In response to my question, Gina says: "I entertain, but it doesn't mean anything to me if I'm not saying something to the world, if I'm not pushing our culture to the forefront."

"Sometimes it's in small ways , other times it's in big ways that amazingly impact the way seeing yourself reflected can have on a person. I know how invisible I felt, I know how invisible black girls feel, so I have to be able - as much as I can - to put ourselves up on screen.

"I've done five films now, and with each one of them, I gain power in the industry [to put more black women] on screen. As long as I have that power, I'm gonna fight for it," she says, expressing her impassioned sentiments on the 'a seat at the table' phenomenon.

With regards to representation behind the scenes, she says, "it's so fascinating how it's absolutely intentional for me to have as many women in positions of power on set and as heads of departments. There are so many women who want to be able to work on movies like this, and it's just about giving them the opportunity. It's not about talent - it's about opportunity."

"The fact that I got the opportunity in Skydance enabled me to direct this film where I pull in women and give them the same opportunity. The women I've given a break to are dope and good at what they do - I was lucky to get them on board. So bringing in more women and POC is not charity - it makes the experience even better," she adds.

To add to this subject, in an interview with the Associated Press, The Old Guard lead character Charlize Theron, said she’s making choices as a producer and actor to ensure her "two small, beautiful African American daughters" would feel represented on-screen.

The actress - who is also a producer on the Netflix action movie also revealed in this interview that she’s in therapy over her apartheid upbringing in South Africa, saying it's therefore important for her as a producer and an actor to take accountability for what she puts out there, not only for her two young daughters, but young black girls in general. 

"Complacency is probably one of the most dangerous places we can go to - that has been our problem with our industry. We move five steps forward, pat ourselves on the back, and then we just stop," she said. 

THE OLD GUARD (2020) - (L to R) Marwan Kenzari as

The big takeaway

The Old Guard has an underlying theme about the uncertainty of life. The mercenaries don't die - they self-heal - but they don't know whether the next time they're killed, that it will be the time they actually die.

The Covid-19 global pandemic has instilled the same kind of fear in us mere mortals around the world. 

As we conclude our chat, I ask Gina how she anticipates the film will be received as fans watch in their respective lockdown situations.

She tells me that "what's most frustrating for people [right now] is a lack of knowledge about what life is going to be like two weeks from now or two months from now," before adding that what she therefore likes about the film is the fact that this group of people are from different cultures that have come together to save the world.

"We are seeing pockets of that happening [with this pandemic], and that's going to be the game-changer of working together," she says.

The Old Guard premiers on Netflix in SA on 10 July 2020.

Additional information and images provided by Neflix.

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