This Women’s History Month, Women in Film (WIF) is giving 12 trailblazing Black women their flowers for their contributions in Hollywood as directors, producers, leaders, and overall content creators. Deemed WIF Pathmakers, the organization, in partnership with Stella Artois, is not only highlighting these women who have forged their own way in the industry but also paying it forward by pairing them mentees who are building a name for themselves as well.
Each veteran pathmaker’s hand-selected rising star awardee will receive a $5,000 grant which can be used to cover expenses for projects or life necessities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this collaboration, ESSENCE spoke with four of the phenomenal pathmakers about their passions, career highlights, and the importance of mentorship for Black women in Hollywood. This is our conversation with director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
When was the moment you knew that you had a passion for film?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There’s two moments. One is when I believed I was a writer and that happened in high school. I had always written short stories, I was a voracious reader and I loved storytelling and in high school, I became obsessed with soap operas. I remember reading an article in Soap Opera Digest – that’s how obsessed I was – about an interview with a soap opera writer and that was the first time that connected with me. I was like, “There’s someone who writes that and gets paid to write that. That’s what I wanna do.” That was the moment where I wanted to be a writer.
In terms of directing, that came once I was at UCLA my freshman year while working on short film sets. It literally was an epiphany because I was carrying equipment and I remember I was a PA and the words hit my head, “You want to direct.” Before film school, I did not have that connection of “that person doing that.” It was two-fold.
You’re an industry vet with iconic films such as Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond The Lights on your list of credits. Do you feel pressure to always perform at the same level, and is it self-applied pressure?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There’s pressure every single time you go out because as an artist, I want to keep growing and improving my craft. I have a fear of failure but I don’t let that stifle me; I let it fuel me and that’s why I work as hard as I do. Absolutely a lot of that is influenced by being an athlete and growing up with an athlete’s mentality of ambition, outworking everybody and a desire to win. My husband said something the other day and it had never clicked before, but he said that I take losses harder than I celebrate my successes. That’s 100% an athlete’s mentality that I brought into this game.
I’m always striving to improve and get better. Every time I sit down to write, I have to remind myself that I know how to write. Every time I direct, I have to remind myself that I’ve been here before but it’s scary every time out because nobody sets out to make bad films. There have been great directors who have made films that weren’t so great, so there’s always that fear in me that I never want to fail. I want to honor my craft, give us great content, and put work out there that people are proud to see themselves in.
Let’s talk about The Old Guard. It made you the first Black woman to direct a major comic book movie, which was huge. What did this moment mean to you and how did it impact the industry at large?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Foremost, we still have firsts in 2020 and 2021 and there’s still firsts to be had. It is just maddening because there’re so many of us that have been grinding and have the talent and it’s been about the lack of opportunity. It’s been fighting for the opportunity and not only fighting for that opportunity but believing and going after it. The industry indoctrinates you into what you can and cannot do, and for so long, that big sandbox was something that the gatekeepers were just not allowing us in. You have to change that mentality and stop buying into that.
I have two boys and they love every Marvel film and every DC film. About a year before Black Panther came out, we had just come back from a Marvel film and one of my sons who I believe was 12 at the time said, “How come we don’t get to see ourselves in that?” That hit because I was like, “Damn, I’m a filmmaker, this is what I do and I haven’t given that to my boys. I haven’t even given that to myself to see myself reflected on screen in a heroic way. It was that day that I changed my mentality from “I wish I could do films like that” to “I’m going to do films like that.” Then, it was about setting my course and taking projects deliberately to make my way to this opportunity that I got with The Old Guard. It was deliberate but I had to change my mindset in believing that I deserved to be here.
Even with so much experience in the game, do you still have mentors?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I have a really solid crew of folk who everytime I set out to do a project, they’re the ones that read the script and see the first cut. They’re there to be brutally honest but they’re brutally honest because they want me to win. That absolutely starts with my husband – my biggest champion and one who I think is an incredible writer and I feel lucky to have the things he’s taught me in terms of writing and the way that he approaches it. People who were my mentors early on like Stan Lathan, Debbie Allen and Yvette Lee Bowser have now become friends but are still in my life as champions. It means a lot that people who were there earlier in my career pushing me and believing in me are now peers. It inspired me early on to mentor and reach back so when I see talent, I’d be aggressive and foster that talent whether it be through encouragement or in a bigger way of producing someone’s work.
How do you use your passion in mentorship to continue to reach back to the next generation of Black filmmakers, directors and creatives?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There’s a number of ways. When the pandemic first hit, somebody reached out on Twitter and said, “I wish I could have a conversation and just learn from [you].” I thought about it and I was not doing meetings, I wasn’t shooting so why not just try something? I put it out on Twitter that I would do a Zoom with 100 people and they could ask me questions. It turned into three different Zooms and from there, it was a group of filmmakers from film school – UFI, UCLA, USC – and I just remembered how it was for me in film school and the struggle it is to be a Black filmmaker, or oftentimes professors or fellow students, and how you’re treated or your work is treated. I was like, “Let me gather this group of folks together because I know what their journey was.” I’ve just been meeting them, watching their work, critiquing, and it’s become this cool collective. More importantly, the mentorship I’m giving them, I love that they have started to talk and work with each other. That’s what you need. You need to build relationships and build your crew early on to help you navigate this industry.
Why was being part of the WIF Pathmaker program so important to you?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s everything I believe in. This industry is really tough to break into and it’s really tough to sustain a career as a Black woman. It’s just not built to champion us so we have to champion ourselves. When you get your foot in this door, it is your absolute responsibility to hold it open and reach back. It falls in line with everything I believe in and when I see talent, I get excited about it. To have the opportunity to identify somebody I feel is talented and give them the opportunity to get some shine as well as get some cash — especially in a pandemic where young filmmakers have been stifled or stopped in their tracks because it’s just so hard to be able to shoot anything. To be able to be given the stipend to help sustain them and sustain their creativity, I was very excited about it.
What inspired you to select Francesca Castelbuono as your awardee, and how do you hope to mentor her beyond the program?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Every time I do a film, when I hire my assistants I always look for aspiring filmmakers because having been on sets before and having a chance to direct, I know how much I learned being on set. It’s just invaluable the things that you learn. As part of my process of finding assistants, they’ve always been young Black women who are aspiring filmmakers and I watch their work. Foremost, the fact that you have work says something because it shows that you’re hustling, you’re serious about the craft and you’re working for it.
For The Old Guard, I was needing a couple of young women and Francesca showed me her film. It was so accomplished, it moved me and the craft and talent is so obvious in her. It was exciting and I knew immediately that this is a woman that I wanted to give this opportunity to to help her grow as a filmmaker. I feel like she has so much talent and she’s continued to hustle and work on getting her next film and getting a feature. My hope is that she gets her shot because she has such a unique voice and to even be part of becoming the director that she wants to be is an honor.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice as a retrospective mentor what would you tell her?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I struggled as a teenager. To know that those struggles have made me who I am today and are struggles that I’m honestly able to tap into with my work, it’s such a cliche but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s really true.