“What’s Discriminated Against Are My Choices”: Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on Representation, Love Stories, and ‘Beyond the Lights’

Gina Prince-Bythewood fandom requires a bit of patience. The filmmaker burst onto the scene in 2000 with two exemplary films: the HBO drama Disappearing Acts and the indie sports romance Love and Basketball. Both were critically acclaimed, and the latter remains a fan favorite, but it took eight years for Prince-Bythewood to make her follow-up (2008’s The Secret Life of Bees) and another six after that to make her latest film, Beyond the Lights, a sweet and earnest love story set in the world of R&B and hip hop. “Where ya been?” I asked Prince-Bythewood in a recent phone interview, and she responded first with a laugh, and then with a story of frustration. “I never thought the film would take this long to get set up,” she says. “This was an incredible fight, to get this film made.”

“I thought it was gonna be an easy sell,” she continues, not unreasonably — after all, it’s both a contemporary love story and a convincingly over-the-shoulder portrait of music superstardom. “I went out with it, and I got turned down by everybody but one studio — and that studio just optioned it. They didn’t even say they were going to make it, they just said, ‘We’ll pay you not to take it anywhere else, and we’ll see if we can find somebody to put in here that we’re excited about.’” The film languished there for a year.

Towards the end of that option period, Prince-Bythewood finally found her star: the magnificent Gugu Mbatha-Raw, not yet cast in her breakout role in Belle. “I found her and knew that she was the one,” Prince-Bythewood recalls, “and the studio said no. ‘She’s not a star, we’re not going to make it with her.’ So we parted ways. Then it was another full year of going back to studios, with Gugu attached, trying to convince them that she is a star, and to make the film.”

Prince-Bythewood finally got financing from BET and distribution from Relativity, the conclusion of a “long slog,” but one that “brought me to a studio where I had creative control over the cast the way I wanted it, the crew the way I wanted it, and to make the film that was in my head for so long.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Beyond the Lights"

Hearing her story, I can’t help but think of the occasional studies that the media dutifully covers, full of depressing data on racial and gender representation in mainstream cinema (example: in the last six years of USC’s most recent study, the annual top 100 films boasted a total of two black women in the director’s chair). “When you see the numbers, it is shocking,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense at all; talent has no gender. It makes no sense. But it’s very interesting because people ask me if I feel discriminated against as a black female director, and I actually don’t — because I’m offered movies all the time to direct. What’s discriminated against are my choices: I like to direct what I’ve written, and what I like to focus on are people of color. So that is absolutely the tougher sell, and the films that you have to fight much harder for, because the people making decisions are going to green-light films that they identify with and that make sense to them, and there are no people of color running studios.”

And in those board rooms and offices, the decision-makers seem to have some difficulty with stories about women and people of color that don’t fit into predefined and very specific boxes. “Studios, they have a genre, which is ‘black film,’” she explains. “But black film is not a genre, you know. That puts every film with people of color in the same box — and Baggage Claim is not the same as 12 Years a Slave, they’re two totally different films. This film is a love story. So I want people to see the love story. But Hollywood calls them ‘urban films’ or ‘black films,’ and it’s really my goal to abolish that and just have people of color in every genre, and tell universal stories that everyone can identify with. The same way I can fall in love with The Notebook or laugh at 40-Year-Old Virgin or Bridesmaids, people should be able to see films with people of color and feel the same way. There are people of color, but it’s not specific to race — it’s a love story.”

That it is. Equal parts sweet and sexy, Beyond the Lights tells the story of a rising superstar (Mbatha-Raw) who falls for an earthy cop (Nate Parker) when he saves her life during what may or may not be a suicide attempt. It’s a bit unsteady in spots, and Prince-Bythwood is not immune from the occasional narrative or visual cliché. But it’s a disarmingly likable picture, and its leads have chemistry to burn. I was struck, while watching it, how rarely we see this kind of straight-ahead intimacy and eroticism between people of color onscreen — and then I remembered having the exact same feeling nearly a decade and a half ago, while watching Love and Basketball. I asked the filmmaker if I was imagining this, or if the atmosphere really hadn’t changed.

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in "Love and Basketball"

“It doesn’t change at all,” she confirms. “Very few love stories are made. We get romantic comedies, but we don’t get love stories. For people of color, they’re almost nonexistent — but even in general, love stories aren’t really made anymore. It really is a focus on romantic comedies, so seeing people in love and seeing love scenes that feel real is a rare thing.”

With Beyond the Lights’ six-year journey coming to an end, Prince-Bythewood is, thankfully, already looking ahead. “The next one I’m going to write and direct, I’m very private about,” she says. “I already have the characters and the story, and if this film, in my wildest dreams, blows up and does really well, I will be able to write this one and it won’t take four years to get it set up. I hope it’ll take much less time.”

Beyond the Lights is out Friday.