Gina Prince-Bythewood is not new to this. Her decades-long screenwriting credits go back as far as 1992 when she contributed to the Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World. Her directorial debut happened nearly 10 years later with her 2000 film, Love & Basketball which grossed over $27 million in the U.S. box office and went on to become a black cinematic classic. Since then, Bythewood directed more films like The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014). Today, Bythewood is stepping away from the dramatic and romantic films of yesteryear and making her mark in the genre of action films with the new Netflix movie, The Old Guard.
Based on the comic book by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard stars lead actresses Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, Hancock) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son). Theron plays Andy, an immortal mercenary recruited for a mission to protect the mortal world. Layne plays Nile, a U.S. Marine recruited to join the badass task force. Before her “rebirth” into her new eternal life as a soldier, she learns about life as an Old Guard, what she’ll stand to gain and lose as undying warrior and more.
Upon receiving the script, Bythewood was “incredibly excited” and happy to have an opportunity where she could not only take on a different type of cinema but also bring a young Black female hero to life and into the spotlight. “I knew the type of action film I wanted to do, an action drama,” she says in an interview with VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle. “And I knew absolutely when I got the opportunity, that I wanted us [Black people] to be in it.” And that we are. With actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) taking on a supporting role, Layne holds her own in the action-packed feature film as she tests her body’s limits in scene after scene. The rising star would be sure to let you know how physicalities set her and her character apart.
“I mean I love the opportunity to be that physical,” she says. “Nile still has so much heart and, being led by Gina, being encouraged to dig deeper into that and to not be afraid of her vulnerability, which was exciting. So I kind of play that, but then still play that physical strength and being a Marine and all of that. So I would say that would actually be the biggest difference between us.”
The Prince-Bythewood and Layne sat with Belle to discuss the limitations around the term “Black cinema,” being a part of a film that has Black women in front and behind the lens, and what they hope for The Old Guard‘s impact 20 years from now.
On how music inspires her screenwriting:
Prince-Bythewood: Music is everything to my process. When I start to write, I create soundtracks for myself too. If it’s just songs that either speak to what I’m writing or open me up emotionally to what I’m about to write. I have soundtracks for myself for directing, and then I create soundtracks as I’m editing. It’s everything and I love doing songs for score. I love the traditional score, but I also love songs for scores. And those are songs that just help elevate the scene, add a little bit more emotion. It doesn’t take over the scene, but it absolutely aides it and songs tell such a story…I love soundtracks, it goes back to Purple Rain. Where you could listen to that soundtrack and then watch the movie again in your head because the songs were that distinct, that’s what I love to do with my films.
On the Black women she pulled influence from when preparing for her role:
Layne: Black women who I find to be strong and just maybe haven’t seen it represented that way on film. Honestly, just thinking about my mom. Angela Bassett was the biggest example of strength. Who else was I thinking of? Those are like the first students to kind of pop in my head of just like, especially with Angela, the way that she just carries herself. There’s such pride and dignity and integrity to her that I just, I mean love. Period. But it was definitely something that, when thinking of Nile, trying to bring some of that in there as well.
On the limiting term “Black cinema” as it relates to Hollywood:
The term “Black cinema” is not a negative to me, nor to us. My issue with it is with Hollywood. In terms of Hollywood using that to describe any film that has a black person in it. So suddenly they feel like, “Oh, we’ve done our one black film.” As opposed to, “We should be in every single genre. Sci-fi, Western, love stories, period pieces.” That’s who we are, that’s the breadth of our humanity, that’s what I want to see. I just don’t want to limit us, but I revel and celebrate black cinema and black film.
On how they would like The Old Guard to be remembered 20 years from now:
Layne: In 20 years from now, I would hope that it would be, you won’t necessarily remember, but as a, I don’t know, a piece of getting Hollywood to tell more of these types of stories with women at the lead in front of and behind the camera. I’m hoping that it will be an opportunity that leads to more doors like this being opened. Just showing that we’re just as capable and it’s just as interesting when we do it.
Prince-Bythewood: And then I’ll just add in 20 years, if people are still watching this film that says it all, that this film had longevity, it spoke to them and it was a world and it’s characters that they wanted to see again and live with again. And as artists, I think that’s a pretty incredible thing.
Interview’s music bed provided by Gus.