TheGrio’s 100: Gina Prince-Bythewood, moving others through films

TheGrio's 100 - Without having neatly-packaged shows ready-made in front of her, as a child, Gina Prince-Bythewood developed an appreciation for literature, reading voraciously...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Television sets are fixtures in African-American households. But not in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s childhood home. The 40-year-old director once told Time magazine that when she was seven, the family television set quit working; it wasn’t replaced until she was 15 years old.

Without having neatly-packaged shows ready-made in front of her, she developed an appreciation for literature, reading voraciously. A visual fever also consumed her at UCLA film school, and her promise as a writer and director won her two prestigious scholarships.

She came to discover and cultivate a love of the filmmaking process from behind the camera — a rare position for an African-American in the industry.

After graduating in 1991, she was a writer for A Different World, the popular spin-off of the wildly popular Cosby Show, and four other shows. Her directorial breakthrough, a 1995 CBS special, gained her a NAACP Image Award, two Emmy nominations and the attention of Hollywood.

The inspirational choices of her motion pictures all come back to the page: she directed Love & Basketball, based on her own script, as well as Disappearing Acts, adapted from the Terry McMillan novel, in 2000.

And most recently, in 2008, she directed The Secret Life of Bees, adapted from Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel set in 1964 South Carolina. Bees broke with Hollywood’s preoccupation with action and special effects, its small-scale multiracial cast (principally populated by actresses black and white) and civil rights era storyline both daring and necessary.

But not too daring for premium television (this month The Secret Life of Bees continues its run on HBO) or for Desson Howe of The Washington Post, who described one Prince-Bythewood film that spoke for all of them — pictures that “look for the class, not the crass, in African-American life.”