Gina Prince-Bythewood knows how to tell a good story. Jump-starting her career on “A Different World,” the mastermind wrote and directed the romantic drama “Love & Basketball” and even the ride-or-die flick “Biker Boyz” with husband Reggie Rock Bythewood. Prince-Bythewood brings her vision back to the big screen again with “The Secret Life of Bees,” the best-selling coming-of-age novel set in the segregated South in 1964. With an all-star cast —Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Queen Latifah —the director has her fingers crossed for recognition from Oscar. Prince-Bythewood shared details with ESSENCE.com about the crazy tactics she used to get her stars into character, the state of Black women in Hollywood, and why this film may help push Barack Obama into the White House.
ESSENCE.COM: What was the most challenging part to bring to life and what was the most fun?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I never wanted to do a period piece. When this came to me and I read the book, I had never seen Black women portrayed like this before and I thought it would be a gift to bring them to life. We never say it out loud but our Boatwright sisters all have natural hair and the women were fine with that. Sometimes you’ll ask an actor about it and they’ll say no. The women loved the clothes and it was fun to go to a different time but Tristan (Wilds) hated those tight, tight jeans (laughs). He didn’t take any of the clothes after shooting.
ESSENCE.COM: I’m told you might have had an actor planted in a local store when JHud was on set to address her use of the N-word. Is that true?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I did two different things. We had very little rehearsal time, and Jennifer was coming off of the whole Oscar experience and was in a whole other world (laughs). So she could get in Rosaleen’s head, I set up an improvisation and hired some White actors to be in a drug store and told her and Dakota to meet me there. I told them it was an improvisation but I didn’t know that Jennifer thought it was real. My only direction to her was not to hit anybody. The shopkeeper followed her around and accused her of stealing. When Jennifer would ask for help, another one would turn and answer to Dakota. The third guy used the N-word and I saw Jennifer’s head whip over to him and I got scared for a second. She said all she remembered was not to hit anybody (laughs). When I talked to them afterward about what they got out of it, Jennifer said the hardest thing was feeling invisible. It was great bonding for [Fanning and Hudson].
ESSENCE.COM: There have been some whispers about Academy Award nods. You have such an amazing cast. Are you banking on Oscar gold?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s something that you dream about and anyone who says they wouldn’t want that is lying, because it’s acknowledgment from your peers that they respect what you did. I just want it so bad for the actors because they sacrificed so much and believed in this film and me. You want them to be rewarded because it’s easy to turn a movie like this down. Our budget was very small, and on the outset, we said we wanted the Black actors to be Academy Award-caliber actors. When I reflect on it, it’s almost a miracle. We screened the movie for an all-White audience and then an all-Black audience and the scores were identical.
ESSENCE.COM: We interview a lot of Black actresses who sometimes speak of the struggles of getting roles, including Sanaa Lathan whom you worked with on “Love & Basketball.” Is there any advice you have for Black actresses in regards to getting more work?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s not their fault and it’s a tough thing. My husband and I are writers, and I wish I could write faster. There are not a lot of movies made with Black actors in mind. That was one of the big reasons why I wanted to do this film. How often are there parts like this for Black women? That was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Sanaa and I are close, and I tell her to keep herself special and not to take just anything so she can work because she’s one of our great ones. It’s tough out there.
ESSENCE.COM: Definitely. In the wake of the election, how has the highly charged political atmosphere changed you creatively?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It was a phenomenal thing to shoot this film in North Carolina at the same time that Barack Obama was in South Carolina, winning over Hillary Clinton. It was so precarious. It could’ve gone either way. It was such a great way to tie things together for the actors, because when this movie was taking place, people were saying that we’d get the right to vote someday, but probably not in our lifetime. Even a year and a half ago I could say, “There’s going to be a Black president, but not in my lifetime, unless it was my son.” So now my sons are going to be the second and third Black presidents (laughs). The coolest thing that has come out of these screenings is people saying that this movie could help Barack get elected. To have just a tiny part in [this historic election] would be amazing.