Gina Prince-Bythewood: ‘Black film’ is not a genre

theGRIO REPORT - Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood says this award season’s biggest snub has been against Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the star of her latest film Beyond the Lights.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood says this award season’s biggest snub has been against Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the star of her latest film, Beyond the Lights. Mbatha-Raw stars in the love story as a sexy, emotionally fragile pop star who becomes involved with the stoic cop (Nate Parker) who foils her suicide attempt.

The film was released in 2014 to favorable reviews and is set for release on DVD, Blu-Ray and video on demand on February 24. Prince-Bythewood, creator of beloved romance flick Love and Basketball, was in New York City to receive an award from the Athena Film Festival. While in town, she took the time to chat with about Beyond the Lights, why she doesn’t like the term “black film” and what she’s doing to help the next generation of filmmakers.

The performance that sparked the idea for Beyond the Lights

“The story came to me at an Alicia Keys concert. It was one of those great moments as a writer where I closed my eyes and I saw the movie in my head. Alicia was singing “Diary,” which is one of my favorite songs, and it was just fueling the images.”

The main character is not based on Rihanna, but…

“When I write, I create a dream cast and I put it on a bulletin board in front of me. It makes the characters real to me and gives me… puts a voice in my head. For the character of Noni… This is the first time I’ve said this. I haven’t said this because I don’t want people to think Noni is Rihanna. It’s not based on Rihanna. But there was this picture of Rihanna when she first came out from the “Pon de Replay” days and it was just this shot of her where her hair was half covering her face and she had this youthful thing, but also this sexy thing.  It was before she really blew up with the sexuality, and that picture said Noni to me. But again, it’s not Rihanna. Noni is not based on Rihanna. It was just that image of her fed my creativity.”

The actual artists whose lives Prince-Bythewood researched

“I can’t say who I talked to because they are very well known, and they were very open and honest with me. I promised that I wouldn’t reveal their names. But some have succumbed to the hyper sexuality, and others fought against it.  That research was everything. That photography scene in there comes from one of the artists. That actually happened to her.  You want that authenticity. I wanted to show the underbelly and the truth of the industry.”

The depression of real life artists

“Two of the artists I talked to had issues like Noni in terms of depression and suicidal thoughts. One of them talked about being alone in the hotel room in a foreign country. It was the depth of loneliness. The other one was someone I took Gugu to meet. She was in the position where Noni was.  She was about to really blow. I would not be surprised to hear this woman was on a balcony, and you would never think it. The depth of her pain was… The woman was crying. She had just met us, but we had such a connection. That was a crazy, unexpected meeting. That artist saw the movie, loves the movie, and I hope that it helps her.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw was robbed this awards season

“The fact that David (Oyelowo) wasn’t nominated, the fact that Gugu wasn’t nominated… Gugu gave two completely different performances in the same year. Journalists and critics didn’t just say ‘This was a good performance.’ They were like ‘This is amazing and transformative.’ Even just look at Jennifer Lawrence when she came out with Winter’s Bone. That was a tiny little film that was made with maybe a million dollars.  She gave a great performance, and she blew up. Gugu did that twice in one year, and there was little chitter chatter and that was it. It drives me nuts.”

Films by and about black people are worthy of accolades

“We’re still fighting the perception that films of us are not worthy or good enough. There were a number of films that should have been in the conversation, and not just for acting but for writing, directing, costume, dp. The Oscars are what they are in terms of the makeup of the academy. It’s about Hollywood green-lighting more films that deserve to be in the conversation.”

The standard approach to marketing “black films” leaves money on the table

“The next frontier we need to conquer is marketing. It’s so deeply ingrained that there is only one way to sell a film to people of color and the belief that the black audience is a monolith. We don’t all think the same or like the same films.  I don’t like the term “black film” because it’s not a genre. A love story is a genre. Sci-fi is a genre.  ‘Black film’ is what Hollywood uses to marginalize any film with more than one black person. It becomes a ‘black film,’ and they treat it as that as if only black folks will go see it. It’s maddening. You’re leaving money on the table.  For Beyond the Lights, we went to the Toronto Film Festival, had a 99% white audience and got a standing ovation. Two weeks later, we went to Urban World, had a 99% black audience and got a standing ovation. Why not market to both? It seems so obvious.”

Why she wrote 55 drafts of the Beyond the Lights script

“We as filmmakers have to push ourselves to do better.  Competition is good. I’m an athlete. I thrive on wanting to be the best. People get on Serena (Williams) about saying she wants to be the best. What are you doing if you’re not trying to be the best? It’s the same for filmmaking. I loved that there were so many good films this year. It pushes me. I wrote 55 drafts of this film because I just wanted it to be better.  It’s good to see what Amma, Ava, Justin and Chris Rock are doing. I mean, Top 5 is such a smart, cool concept.  It was a good year that was not recognized, and that was disappointing.  Also, of all the films nominated, not one has a female protagonist or a female point of view.  That’s frightening. We are 50% of the population, but we are invisible when it comes to Hollywood films.”

Giving back to up and coming filmmakers

“I went to UCLA film school. It meant everything to me as the filmmaker I am today. I was broke in college. Broke, broke, broke. You have to make films, but if you don’t have money, it affects what you can do in film school.  I had to beg, borrow and steal to make my student film, and I had to work.  Other privileged folks could just focus on their movie. Felicia Henderson, Mara Brock Akil and I decided to put our money together and create a scholarship that will go towards a student film. We choose a student every year and give them money to make their student film, so they don’t have to struggle. I’m very proud of the Four Sisters Scholarship.”

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.