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‘Old Guard’ Director Gina Prince-Bythewood Says She Is “Scared Every Day for My Boys”

Even for huge movie directors, racism is very, very real.

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Gina Prince-Bythewood is a movie director who knows how to hold your attention. She set the gold standard for smart rom-coms with 2000’s Love & Basketball and 2014’s Beyond the Lights. Right now, she’s just directed The Old Guarda Netflix smash-hit starring Charlize Theron as the leader of a team of immortal mercenaries. The movie was meant to open in theaters, but the fictional undead on-screen were no match for the COVID-19 pandemic. For people stuck at home, it’s good news. The movie is doing fantastic. The movie’s director, however, is a little uneasy.

Hopeful about the future, but like all of us, she’s a parent who is more than a little bit worried about the state of the world. Prince-Bythewood is also a Black woman, and tells Fatherly that the apprehension she feels when her kids leave the family house isn’t fed by some hypothetical, ephemeral “what if” scenario, but a very real, visceral, pit of her stomach terror.

One of Prince-Bythewood’s sons just started college. The other son will start driving soon. For the willfully obtuse, recent headlines make it very clear why this particular parent would be concerned about her boys. The Sentencing Project reported that in 2016, Black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all people arrested in this country, which is double their share of the total population. “That fear is so real,” the mom of two tells Fatherly. 

Prince-Bythewood has recently been vocal on social media and in interviews, about how systemic inequality infects so many parts of her life. It’s not an accident that her Instagram handle is the defiant, quietly confident @gpbmadeit. She doesn’t apologize for taking up space, or having a voice, or supporting fellow filmmakers of color. At 51, she reached a new milestone, something that white dudes half her age, with, if we’re being generous, a third of her experience, usually get handed to them by eager studios: She’s now the first Black female filmmaker to direct a superhero movie. 

“I’ve been outspoken because we have to be. Every time we think there’s a sea change — you look at the numbers and they’re still dismal. I was excited about this year. There were five tentpole blockbuster films being directed by women and women of color. It’s never happened in the history of Hollywood. I hate what has happened this year in terms of theatrical releases,” she says.

Prince-Bythewood recently talked to Fatherly about parenthood, superheroes, and why she feels hopeful about the future. Here’s what she said.

What a time to be promoting a movie, right? When the world feels like it’s imploding. 

It’s a surreal time. I spent two years of my life on this movie and want it out in the world. I 100 percent believe that art is so important at all times but certainly in times of unrest and uncertainty.

Speaking of unrest and uncertainty, you’re the mother of two teen boys. How do you discuss what’s going on, in terms of the protests and police brutality, with them? 

Very bluntly. I am scared every day for my boys. I was scared before. I’m even more scared now. Every time my 19-year-old goes out — thankfully because of the pandemic, he rarely goes out, just to hike or pick up food — I get scared. My 16-year-old is not driving yet because the DMV has been closed. Honestly, I’m OK with that.

We did go to the protests. We debated and debated in terms of the COVID risk but it was such a need for them to be out there and we as parents felt the same. It’s a daily conversation. How to protect themselves. What needs to change. Our country is in such dire straits yet there is a glimmer of hope. That statues are coming down. That people are actively talking about defunding police and learning what it means. These things are happening within this utter chaos. Others have finally heard us and are fighting with us.

In this movie, Charlize Theron is a total ass-kicker and utterly fearless. Yet you’re not someone closely associated with action comic book tentpoles. How’d you come to do it? 

I love great love stories and I love action. The throughline of my work is redefining what it means to be female and women are warriors and are worthy of having a voice. Badass has no gender. Courage has no gender.

They trusted me with this big old movie. And then we needed to cast it. Who could embody Andy? She is the greatest warrior in the world. I wanted this film to feel grounded and real.

When you’re in charge of production this massive, do you let the stress get to you? 

I am very chill on set. Directing is incredibly stressful. There’s so much pressure but I love it so much. I get to tell stories on this canvas. I’m able to be chill because I’m so prepared. A female director stepping into this space has to be prepared. Otherwise, people look at you and think, ‘Does this chick know what she’s doing?’ I have a strong vision. I need my crew to be inspired.

Hollywood has been talking a good game, especially of late, in terms of diversity and inclusion. Have you seen a difference? 

Black directors — these last couple of weeks have been fascinating in Hollywood. The people in power who have been calling me and asking me for advice have not been defensive. They are listening. I’ve been blunt about how it feels to walk into these different spaces as a director and being the only Black people in the entire space. I’ve seen definitive change. I do get offered a lot of stuff.

I assume your sons have seen the movie and given you the proverbial thumbs up. 

Showing it to my boys, 16 and 19 — which is what I did prior to showing it to (screenwriter) Greg Rucka and the audience — was so scary. They love the genre and they love action. I was away from them because of this film for longer than I’ve ever been. I needed them to love it. And they did. That was amazing.

I didn’t make this just for us to see ourselves as heroes. The world needs to see that, to normalize that. My boys — they were excited to see Wonder Woman but it wasn’t the same level as with Avengers or Iron Man.

Your movies have always had Black characters front and center and you’ve got the very cool KiKi Layne in Old Guard playing a mercenary marine and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a CIA operative. 

What’s so important is that films with Black characters in them should not just be about our trauma. There’s so much more to us than that. They should show our full range of humanity. That’s going to take decades. The more we can put Black folks on screen in heroic roles, that’s absolutely helpful.

The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix right here.