The Unstoppable Gina Prince-Bythewood

‘Love & Basketball’s’ writer/director on her new show as an ‘autopsy’ of Ferguson, the LA riots, and the supreme importance of female swagger

Shots Fired, TV’s most direct response to Black Lives Matter this spring, begins by flipping your expectations. In small-town North Carolina, a shell-shocked black cop (Tristan Wilds) stands a few feet away from the unarmed white suspect he’s just gunned down. Premiering tonight (March 22) on Fox, Shots Fired is an ambitious attempt to fuse the prime-time murder mystery, the zoom-out storytelling about institutional corruption made famous by The Wire, and explorations of several issues at the heart of the BLM movement, like school segregation and prison privatization — in just 10 episodes. Directed and co-written by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the pilot is stylish, dense, and exhilaratingly good.

If anyone can pull off the formidable challenge that is Shots Fired’s dizzying aspirations it’s Prince-Bythewood, who created the drama with her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood. Her forte is breathing pulsing, yearning life into traditional, even stodgy, genres. Love & Basketball, her 2000 coming-of-age romance between two young basketball players, made Slate’s Black Film Canon, which encompasses nearly a century of cinema. Her most recent film, Beyond the Lights — another romance, this time between a pop singer and a cop, both struggling to forge identities outside the paths their parents have laid out — headlined one of the New York Times best films of 2014 lists. The Secret Life of Bees, from 2008, feels like Prince-Bythewood’s least personal work — it’s the only one of her films not to star a young black woman, centering instead on Dakota Fanning’s preteen character finding her “real” family amid a trio of African-American sisters during the civil rights era. Still, the solidly received drama gently bucks against conventional narratives about oppression by showcasing black female agency, creativity, and sensitivity via winsome performances by Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo.

Given her unassailable track record, it’s frankly a little crazy that Prince-Bythewood’s not regarded as a filmmaking Queen Midas by now. That may change with Shots Fired and her highly anticipated next movie, an adaptation of Roxane Gay’s kidnapping novel An Untamed State. The writer-director is loyal to her leading ladies: Her Love & Basketball lead, Sanaa Lathan, enjoys Shots Fired’s meatiest role as combative investigator Ashe Akino — Prince-Bythewood’s most complicated heroine yet — while her Beyond the Lights luminary Gugu Mbatha-Raw will star in An Untamed State.

Love & Basketball hinges on one of the most unusual seduction scenes I’ve ever seen — which happens to sum up Prince-Bythewood’s creative alchemy. Lathan’s professional baller challenges her childhood sweetheart (Omar Epps) to a one-on-one game in his backyard for his heart. He’s engaged to someone else, but you can see his entire body relax and his resistance melt as she opens her heart to him — and he gives in to fate. Both Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights end with its male leads watching their lady loves kick ass at their jobs — on the court and onstage — in poses of romantic pride and admiration that we somehow never, ever see any other male character inhabit in any other movie.

Make what you want to see — that age-old cliché seems like goddamn gospel when applied to Prince-Bythewood’s heartfelt work, which always feels personal, even when not strictly autobiographical. Each project is an invitation to get to know the director better and to take inspiration from her creations. Like her old-fashioned yet contemporary-feeling romances, Shots Fired claims plenty of familiar elements: the mismatched detectives (Lathan’s streetwise investigator and Stephan James’s straitlaced DOJ lawyer), the discovery of a second murder that holds the key to solving the first (this time, a young black man executed by a white cop), and a throng of neighbors and community leaders who want to do the right thing — and are quickly persuaded to do otherwise. And yet, under Prince-Bythewood’s tutelage, all these tropes feel warm and alive again.

In an open and wide-ranging discussion, Prince-Bythewood spoke to MTV News about Shots Fired as an “autopsy” of Ferguson, how her experiences as a transracially adopted child and a young woman during the LA riots shaped her views on racial inequality, and the supreme importance of female swagger.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

MTV News: How did Shots Fired come about?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: We have two boys. After [George] Zimmerman was found not guilty [of killing Trayvon Martin], [we] had to explain to our older son, who was 12 at the time, how that could happen. Instead of hugging and consoling him, my husband pulled out a documentary about Emmett Till and showed it to him and started to talk about how the justice system works in this country — and how it often doesn't. From that conversation, our son wrote a short story about Trayvon Martin going to heaven to meet Emmett Till.

Wow.

Prince-Bythewood: That short story ended up in Hour 5 of Shots Fired, so he was actually the first writer on the show. [After Zimmerman’s release], Reggie and I really had a desire to say something. And then Ferguson happened.

We think of [Shots Fired] as almost an autopsy of Ferguson that shows the events from every street in the house. And, in dealing with these two murders [of a black victim and a white victim], we show the ways that communities and the media deal with victims differently based on race.

Right. Shots Fired starts with the initial crime, then broadens its canvas to survey the town and its widespread police corruption. Why was that structure important to you?

Prince-Bythewood: When these things happen, there's the victim, there's the family, there are the police, there are the politicians, and there is the community. Everybody is affected. Everybody has a point of view. We really wanted to dig into that and get to know all these different people that are changed by it. That's what we were most hoping to achieve: empathy for all of these characters and [conversations] about our criminal justice system, which is broken on every level, from the street all the way up to the highest level of government. Obviously, really high now.

You've been very open about your adoption by white parents. Do you think that, being adopted by white parents and living in a predominantly white town like Monterey, California, you grew up with a different sense of the police than you have now?

Prince-Bythewood: I would not say a different sense of police. I mean, growing up the way I did, it was tough being one of only a few black people in the town and in school. What my upbringing got me is never feeling completely safe emotionally. Never knowing when something racial was going to pop off based on how I look. So that's something I've carried with me personally and is reflected in my work.

You went directly from film school to the writers room of A Different World, the popular Cosby Show spin-off. Can you talk about that experience?

Prince-Bythewood: In film school, I knew I wanted to be a director, but I found out pretty damn quickly that nobody was just going to hand me a script to direct. I was so fortunate to get the opportunity to be a writers' apprentice on A Different World. It was my favorite show. So to go from watching Dwayne and Whitley to writing for Dwayne and Whitley was incredible.

A Different World was run by black women, Debbie Allen and Yvette Lee Bowser. [Lead writer] Susie Fales-Hill was a hero of mine, because she was 28 when she was running one of the top shows on television. Going to work every day and seeing [black women in charge] made that normal to me.

Reggie was hired a week apart from me, so we met [in the writers room] and became best friends pretty quickly, and ultimately got married.

You must have been in LA during the 1992 riots. Next month is the 25th anniversary, and unfortunately, we’re still dealing with so many of the same issues of police brutality against black men and boys that sparked that anger and violence.

Prince-Bythewood: Yes. That was probably the first time I was truly struck by inequality. The fact that [the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King] was all there, on video, and [the officers] still got off — it was shocking to me.

When the verdict came down, Reggie and I hadn't started dating yet. The [Different World] staff was separated at that point, and I just felt like I needed to do something and be in the community, so I drove down to First Union Church, and it just so happened that Reggie had done the same thing. We found each other there. We needed to hear something; we needed direction. The pastor at the time told us all to go home and read a book. That was not what any of us needed to hear. We still talk about that today — the fact that we're artists who view art as a weapon [by] speaking to what’s going on. And the fact, yeah, that we’re still dealing with that same thing. It continues to happen, it continued to happen while we were shooting, and it’s going to continue to happen until something changes. We hope Shots Fired can spark a conversation.

What was it like working with Sanaa Lathan again after 15 years?

Prince-Bythewood: Sanaa and I are really good friends. We met on Love & Basketball and butted heads a lot during that for various reasons that we laugh about now. She's an incredible actor. For Shots Fired, Reggie and I thought about who could embody Ashe. She's complicated and flawed and fascinating to us. She also has to [convincingly sell the line], “I’m every guy’s type.” Sanaa can bring all of those things, yet has this innate vulnerability that makes you care about her no matter what her character is doing.

Ashe is very different than Sanaa: Ashe is a fighter, though Sanaa would joke she’s a lover first. We put her with these two teachers who teach MMA, and she worked with them not only on the physicality, but also to get into the mindset of a fighter. And with a running coach. If a woman on film is supposed to be tough and athletic but she can't run, it drives me nuts.

Do you see similarities between her character in Love & Basketball and her character here?

Prince-Bythewood: If Monica went into law enforcement [laughs] and things turned out differently with Quincy, she might've become Ashe. There's definitely similarities. Ashe, even though she's not an athlete, embodies an athlete's mentality, [even in] her relationship with her daughter. She puts posters of Serena [Williams] in her daughter's room, because that's somebody that she wants her daughter to be inspired by. Both have that swagger, but also that vulnerability that they keep to themselves.

Can you talk about that swagger? It's been many years since Love & Basketball, but Monica has remained such a singular character. I still don't see characters like her in movies, maybe because people are afraid to show or humanize female athletes, especially female athletes who are proud of their talent.

Prince-Bythewood: My parents put me in sports when I was 5 years old, and they put my sisters in sports. So that's what I grew up with, that mentality: “It’s OK to want to be the best. Aggression is good.” You have to have that little walk on the court or down the track. I love to put that into my female characters, because I don't think enough girls are taught that at a young age. That’s why Serena is such a hero for me, because she’s got such incredible swagger, and it’s earned, and she can teach us that it is a good thing. The fact that she has been denigrated and called cocky — I mean, she's the best in the world! I hope [my work] can inspire other women to have that swagger and believe that they can have it all.

It sounds like you also have a lot of swagger.

Prince-Bythewood: I’m very shy. But as a director and [especially] a female director, absolutely: How I used to walk on the court is how I walk on set. And I have to — I mean, I’m controlling 150, 200 people, and everything is on me. But sports also teaches you that it's about the team, and the better your teammates are, the better they make you.

Another recurring motif I see in your work is that you have a lot of tough mothers. In Love & Basketball, Monica clashes with her feminine-housewife mother (Alfre Woodard). In Beyond the Lights, a young singer feels exploited by her momager (Minnie Driver). In Shots Fired, Ashe loves her young daughter fiercely, but tends to scare her with her hair-trigger temper. Why do you think you’re drawn to these difficult mother-daughter relationships?

Prince-Bythewood: In the films that you mentioned, it was about a girl trying to ultimately — you want the love and respect of your parents. That comes from being adopted, and feeling like I was given up. My parents are amazing. When I said I wanted to go into film, they didn’t understand it, but they were incredibly supportive. [But] growing up, I absolutely did have that feeling of, "Wow, somebody just gave me up." That was infused in The Secret Life of Bees [too] — the protagonist wanting unconditional love from her [dead but much-imagined] mother.

But for Shots Fired, it was important for Reg and me to show a lot of different women. The cast is filled with incredible female characters and actors from all different walks of life, but ultimately, each has their own strengths, and it was important for Reg and me to put that out into the world. [Mother of the slain teen] Shameeka's [DeWanda Wise] strength actually comes from the women in Reggie's family, who struggled but always had dignity and made sure that their children had better. The governor [Helen Hunt] is a woman who achieves the highest level of power that a woman can get — well, we won’t go into that. Ashe, who is completely different from them, finds her strength in a whole different way. And then [Officer Beck’s] wife [Clare-Hope Ashitey]: Her strength is trying to protect her family as it’s imploding after her husband is accused of murdering a teen. It's about giving women strength and putting that onscreen.

Are you still working on the film adaptation of Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State?

Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely! I cannot, cannot, cannot wait! Roxane and I are cowriting the script. It's an incredible, incredible story.

The story — about a woman who is kidnapped and tortured and raped — seems darker than anything you’ve worked on, maybe even more than Shots Fired. What drew you to the project?

Prince-Bythewood: Well, on the surface it's absolutely darker than anything I've done. Yet ultimately, it ends hopefully. It starts as an incredible love story — how do you repair a fairy tale — and that’s what I was drawn to. Not only that, but the bigger themes: what's happening in Haiti, and how women are often at the brunt of conflict and world conflict.

I met Roxane when she hosted a screening of Love & Basketball. She asked me to read her book, An Untamed State, and I was in the middle of something and knew I didn't have time. Out of respect for her, I said I'll just read 20 pages to say, “Hey, I read it.” But I could just not put it down — it was so visceral. The story left me physically breathless. I thought, my god, if I could make a movie that makes an audience feel the way I feel, it would be incredible. I saw Gugu in it. I called [Roxane] up immediately after and said, “I gotta make this.” She [had] wanted Gugu [too].

We’ve talked a lot about what I've found as common threads in your work. What do you think are through lines in your projects?

Prince-Bythewood: Characters that inspire, that people will aspire to. I want my work to always be hopeful, in the end. You're giving me two hours, and, in [Shots Fired’s] case, 10 hours of your life. I don't want you to ever leave something I’ve done feeling worse than when you came in. I hope the work can be aspirational, and aspirational doesn't have to be corny at all.