The New Guard
Gina Prince-Bythewood is making strides for representation in front of and behind the camera with the blockbuster of the summer, The Old Guard.
Aimee Spinks and Mohammed Kamal
With The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood is finally getting the opportunity to bring her singular sensibility to the blockbuster action arena. Throughout her two-decade career, the director has crafted thoughtful romances and coming-of-age dramas — from Love & Basketball to The Secret Life of Bees to Beyond the Lights. Until now, though, the glass ceiling in comic-book movies has proven frustratingly durable.The Old Guard realizes a paradigm shift with regard to representation, and it also redefines what constitutes a major action flick. Based on its first week, Netflix projects that 72 million households will have gotten in on the action during the first 28 days of release. In other words, The Old Guard has officially earned blockbuster status. Prince-Bythewood gets her due here. She joins a handful of female directors who have recently made headway in the genre, including Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Anna Boden (Captain Marvel), Andrea Berloff (The Kitchen), and Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey). But she distinguishes herself as the first black woman ever to direct a live-action graphic-novel adaptation.
She, alongside fellow female producers Charlize Theron, Dana Goldberg, and Beth Kono, bring on board a dream team of behind-the-scenes talent, with women featured in prominent roles. Sara Bennett serves as visual effects supervisor, Mary Vogt as costume designer, Jille Azis as set decorator, Hayley Williams as special effects supervisor, and Tami Reiker as co-cinematographer. Prince-Bythewood’s longtime editor, Terilyn Shropshire, also adds her singular perspective once again.The team delivers everything you could want from a film in this genre. Meanwhile, Prince-Bythewood’s character-driven sensibility shines through to great effect. More than a blow-’em-up, shoot-’em-up thriller, her interpretation revolves around human connection. She crafts a groundbreaking blockbuster with two women, black and white, at its center. That representative duo is something of a coup. Not since Halle Berry in Catwoman has a black woman occupied such prominent narrative space in this type of movie. Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson fronted blaxploitation films during the 1970s, but the number of black women in the action genre has remained limited since then. (Some notable exceptions include Berry’s performances in Catwoman and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Vivica A. Fox’s role in Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, and a few characters in the Marvel Universe.) Instead, black women still have to fight to avoid relegation to racially stereotyped or caricatured roles. Hollywood often confuses inclusion with representation. Rarely, then, do we see powerful black women onscreen. The Old Guard stands in contrast, achieving true representation. Actress Kiki Layne stars as Nile, a U.S. marine who discovers she is immortal. The part is a drastic evolution, not just for cinematic adaptations of comics, but for Layne as well: Her most prominent role until now was as the soft-spoken but determined Tish in Barry Jenkins’s sweeping romance If Beale Street Could Talk. Layne teams up with co-star Charlize Theron, whose character, Andy, enlists Nile to join her fierce band of warriors. It took a startling and transformative performance in Monster (leading to an Oscar win) to change Hollywood’s perception of what roles Theron could handle. That film was also Theron’s first producing credit, and it certainly wouldn’t be her last. Since then, she’s used her production company, Denver and Delilah, to champion female-centered projects, taking a hands-on approach in order to bring the stories she’s telling to life.
With starring turns in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road under her belt, Theron has become the archetypal action heroine. Watching her, the template is clear — though more treacherous — for Layne. Unlike other onscreen partnerships between white and black women, Nile isn’t the best friend or the narrative cog uplifting a white woman. She demands autonomy. Fierce and loyal, yet morally clear-eyed, on several occasions she defies Andy.Complex portrayals extend beyond these two characters, too. While some comic-inspired blockbusters have hinted at L.G.B.T.Q.+ characters, The Old Guard prominently features them: Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are in a loving relationship, neither effeminate comic fops nor “sissy” stereotypes. A mixed-race couple, they emit easeful power. After being captured, thrown in an armored van, and tormented by guards over their affection for each other, the pair triumphantly turns the tables. The baddies open the van door to find Joe and Nicky smiling, while the bruised, unconscious bodies of the guards who once mocked them lay strewn about. The shot is played for laughs, but it’s not punching down. Instead, the scene serves as a visual broadside against toxic masculinity, something that’s rarely articulated in similar contexts without a heavy hand.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many toys you have. You have to tell a good story.”
With The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood reinvents this genre beyond the glorification of violence. She intimately reformulates the blockbuster from the big screen to the Netflix screen. And she delivers a major action flick to a diverse audience that wants to see itself reflected onscreen.
Kris Tapley spoke to Prince-Bythewood about the film, and about her craft, for his podcast The Call Sheet.
Kiki Layne is amazing in the film, no question. You have such an eye for talent. You discovered Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball and cast Gugu Mbatha-Raw early in her career in Beyond the Lights.
GPB: Those are three actresses who all went to school. I loved that they have that craft to fall back on. They made it their life’s work to learn. It’s a really good thing as a director to know that your collaborator has that work ethic. I need you to have the courage to go there — whether it be in a big action scene or a love scene or a very emotional scene. You won’t hold back. I feel like my job as a director is to create a space where you feel safe enough to give me everything. And then I need you to have the courage to do that.
Watch The Old Guard
on Netflix now.