For countless black moviegoers, Love & Basketball remains a classic. Complete with relatable black leads and an emotional, yet realistic plotline, the film plays for your heart and wins. But this triumph isn't without tremendous effort. The film, which debuted in 2000, was a labor of love for screenwriter and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, rife with studio rejections and struggles to battle the stereotypes abundant in mainstream productions.
Her latest project, The Secret Life of Bees, debuts in theaters today andwas just as difficult to get on screen. Still, Prince-Bythewood insists that the opportunity to bring Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel to the silver screen was truly a gift. Set during the 1960s in the racially charged South, the complex tale of frail Lily Owens and her strong-minded caregivers, the Boatwright sisters, is carefully woven and gently unfurled for viewers.
The all-star cast includes Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo and Alicia Keys who portray the fiercely independent August, May and June Boatwright. Along side this trio—and rounding out the film's powerful female circle—are Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens and Jennifer Hudson as headstrong Rosaleen Daise. Each actress delivers a captivating performance and a magnetic emotional arc, but it was Prince-Bythewood who brought their characters to life, both on script and on camera.
Armed with a laid-back demeanor and optimistic outlook, Prince-Bythewood's passion for filmmaking is something she refuses to compromise. The Root sat down with this award-winning director to discuss the development of BEES, lessons learned since Love & Basketball and how hard it can be to bring positive black images to the silver screen.
Saaret E. Yoseph: What drew you to this project?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I was so blown away by the story. I got to the line of the book where Lily says "I'm unlovable," and it that was the moment that I said I had to tell this story. And then these Boatwright sisters. I'd never seen black women like that, especially in the 60s. And I felt like if I had a chance to bring them to life it would really be a gift. I just didn't want to pass that up.
SEY: What challenges did you have to deal with when adapting the book into film?
GPB: The toughest thing was that the book is from Lily's point of view, so I thought how can I visualize that? And also there's so many great things in the book—what don't I put in? There's just that great responsibility and really fear of not wanting to mess it up. I mean people love this book. It's not just, "I like it." They love it. So, I think what was beneficial to me was that I loved the book, as well and it really served as my Bible, as a personal blueprint. There was no reason for me to stray too far.
SEY: You once said that directing films provides a sense of freedom that television doesn't really allow. With a film like BEES where there's already a setup, do you still feel that sense of freedom?
GPB: You know, because I was able to put so much of myself into this, because I saw so much of myself in Lily and also June, I didn't feel that restriction. This case—the book—was just such a great gift. To write something from scratch and direct it, when it's 100 percent your vision, you know, there's nothing greater. But, this was pretty close. I fell in love with these characters when I read the book. I know I keep using the word, but it was a gift. To be able to be the one to give them life was a special feeling.
SEY: You saw yourself in Lily and June?
GPB: Lily and June. (Laughs.) Two polar opposites.
SEY: But they're not that polar, though. Because I feel like June really had some vulnerabilities she was trying to cover up.
GPB: Yeah, she was wounded. She's not a bitch. (Laughs.)
SEY: Well, all of the sisters could be mischaracterized. On the surface, some might see this movie as an update of the caregiving black women "Mammy" figures rescuing a white girl. But the film is something more empowering. How were you able to avoid the pitfalls of this stereotype in the film?
GPB: I mean, me as a moviegoer, as a black woman, I don't want to see that. I would run screaming from any movie that does that. And I would be one of the loudest people to talk about something like that. So, just off the bat, that's not something I would ever make. It's not something that I would even want to see. And I wanted to make sure that was clear in this film. One of the reasons I wanted to make it was that this book just smashed every stereotype people had about black women in the 60s. You know, these women were educated and cultured and had their own land and business. They were just natural and real. It's not a fantasy. There were women like this. They're just never talked about. You only see one thing, so I thought it was very important to bring this to the screen.
SEY: You began your career as a writer. What made you want to take the leap into directing?
GPB: I started writing for TV [after film school] and was extremely fortunate to start on A Different World. It was run by black women, and it was such a nurturing environment. I met my husband there, and it just couldn't have been a better experience. But I wrote for TV for five years and every year—especially, as I moved into drama—it was so hard for me to just pour my heart and soul into a script and just hand it over to someone else. Sometimes I didn't agree with the way they were directing the actors or shooting it. You know, I just realized I had to follow my dream. So, I quit. I gave myself a year and said let me write. And that script was Love & Basketball.
SEY: Love and Basketball and other projects you've directed, like the show Girlfriends, had predominantly black casts. Is their anything you're conscious of or do differently when working with minority actors?
GPB: Well, it starts with the writing. With A Different World we were dealing with characters that were in college. What I'm attracted to is positive characters. Part of Love & Basketball was to give 13-year-old girls a chance to go to a film and see themselves up there on screen and see themselves positively. I know what negative images can do so, what if we flip that? So, it's really what I'm attracted to.
My husband and I have this great—I'll say great because it drives us—but it's this quote:
Anybody can portray reality, but an artist portrays what reality should be. And I think that's really what mirrors our work.
I just don't want my name on some of the stuff that's put out there. I don't go to see it, and I certainly don't want my name on it. I'm willing to wait. I mean, for me to take a year and a half, two years of my life to be away from my family, it's got to be something I'm passionate about.
My husband and I said early on we would never work for money and even with two kids, it gets tough, but we've held on to that. And I hope we can always hold on to that. We are trying to change black film and give us all something different. It's harder to get that stuff made. Like with The Secret Life of Bees, it's based on a best-seller and with this cast, there was still only one studio out of everybody that wanted to make it.
SEY: When a project like that is a labor of love and you're swimming against the tide, do you take it personal when you face rejection?
GPB: Oh yeah! I mean, when I wrote Love & Basketball, we went to every single studio. I had a list on my fridge of every studio, and every day it was checking off another studio that passed on it. It is incredibly painful and soul-crushing. The same with BEES. I was thinking, "We've got a best-seller, an amazing cast—why is this so hard?"
People ask if I've been discriminated against as a black woman, and I don't think I ever have in this business. What's been discriminated against are my choices which are focusing on women and black women.
SEY: But the two are very much tied. Your identity and the choices you make on projects.
GPB: (Laughs.) Yeah, it's tough. But, again, if I stop fighting, if my husband stops fighting, who's going to make these films? So, I'm up for it!
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer living in Washington, D.C and editorial assistant for The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"