This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s The Old Guard.
It’s often easy enough to tell whether a movie or TV show has been inclusively cast, but behind-the-camera diversity can be harder to spot. It can reveal itself in the details of a story, like costuming, word choices, and the small but important cultural traditions that non-white filmmakers often embed in their projects. In Netflix’s new comic book superhero film, The Old Guard, one of those signifiers was relatively simple: Kiki Layne’s hairstyle.
Layne, best known for her breakout role in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, plays Nile Freeman, a young American Marine who’s killed in Afghanistan only to awaken a near-immortal, the latest recruit in a group of centuries-old warriors. Taken under the wing of their leader, Andy (Charlize Theron), Nile grapples with her new-found immortality and her role within this band of fighters. And throughout the movie, she wears her hair in long cornrows.
It’s a small detail of her character, but a revealing one. Cornrows are pretty, practical, and cool in warm weather, making them the perfect hairstyle for a soldier in the Middle East. But they’re also one of many traditional black hairstyles that have been deeply stigmatized. It wasn’t until 2017 that black women in the armed services were permitted to wear dreadlocks, and cornrows still must meet strict requirements in order to be worn by military women. And the hairstyle is rarely seen in big mainstream films, and is even more rarely sported by young heroines.
“Our hair is so policed, even to this day,” Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood, also known for Love & Basketball and Secret Life of Bees, told Esquire. The thoughtful approach to Nile’s hair is just one small indication of the many ways in which the film breaks new ground. Aside from its black co-heroine, the movie also features male heroes in a romantic relationship, and who profess their love to each other in a scene taken directly from Greg Rucka’s original comic. Bythewood herself is the first Black woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie.
But The Old Guard isn’t only a superhero movie with good politics; it’s also just a great superhero movie. We talked to the director about taking the comic adaptation from the page to the screen, efforts to make Hollywood more inclusive for Black creatives, and whether or not we’ll get to see a sequel.
Sometimes diversity that’s not in the source material is added for film or TV adaptations, but so much of it was built into Rucka’s comics. What did it feel like to adapt them?
I love Greg Rucka’s brain. I love the characters he creates, and I love the absolutely organic diversity in this graphic novel. The fact that there was this small group of warriors from different cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and genders that have come together to save the world and protect humanity—that’s a world that I see in my vicinity, and that’s a world I want to see reflected, not only in the movies, but everywhere. That excited me so much. And of course, the fact that there’s a young, black female warrior that I get to put into the world that he created. And his character, Joe, who’s Middle Eastern and gets to be a warrior as opposed to demonized, as Hollywood loves to do. And this gay couple, Nicky and Joe, they get to be warriors. So, there was so much built into the comic that I wanted to build on. I truly felt grateful to be the one to be able to bring them to life.
So all of that was baked in, but as I continued to cast, it was always, “Let’s open this up.” So Niles’s fellow Marines, I knew I wanted both to be women of color, because that is actually the truth of it, as opposed to what we always see, which is just white men. And the fact that we have Chiwetel in my film is so amazing. Diversity in casting is not just putting people of color in random roles. Once you cast and allow them to be truthful to who they are, it feels authentic and real, and not put together.
One plot point that seemed different from the comic was Andy being on her last life, so to speak. Why was that included in the movie?
Again, Greg wrote such an incredible story. The one concern that we had in developing it, was, “Is there enough jeopardy and stakes?” They can die, and they never know when they’re going to, but adding that extra layer gave us that jeopardy for her character and allowed us to really hone in on things that connected me so much with her character when I first read her, this woman who wants it to end. She is not making a mark on the world, in her mind. The world keeps hurting itself on a loop. She has lost her purpose and wants it to be over. And I love the fact that at that very moment, when she says, “I am done,” a new immortal comes to life, which is Nile, who has that innate goodness, which ultimately saves the Old Guard, and saves Andy.
Andy wants it to end and Booker also has this death wish, but they approach it so differently. What makes Andy able to keep going on? Is it Nile? Or would she have been able to keep on, regardless?
They’re all warriors, but Andy is the true warrior, and as much as she wants it to end, it has to end in the right way. Whereas Booker takes it into his own hands and does it the wrong way. Betrays them, tries to use someone who is evil to help them find the ending. So, it’s that soldier mentality that Andy was born with. You don’t give up. “As much as I want to give up, I can’t give up.” Booker was willing to give up in that moment.
I read that you asked the cast to read On Killing by Dave Grossman. And I was wondering if you could talk a bit about why it was that book, and what you wanted their performances to be informed by.
I read that book in preparation as a director and a storyteller for this film. And I was blown away by the main premise within it, which is that taking a life is as damaging psychologically to the soldier as the fear of losing your life on the battlefield. I’d never heard that or even thought about that before. That’s certainly not what we’re taught in everything that’s put out about soldiers. Death and killing is just the thing, you do it and you move on. And I felt it was so apropos to both Andy and Nile, and would absolutely give them a beautiful connectivity. And was compelled to kill because for them, taking one life saves many, but there has to be a toll after thousands of years of doing that, and not actually knowing why.
Nile, as a Marine, takes her first life. And that is affecting her. It’s not something that just went away. So, I felt it was a good way to connect them, and I felt it was a good way to add some depth to the piece. I didn’t give the actors a full book, because it’s a big book, but I pulled specific parts, which were soldiers talking about the toll and psychologists talking about the toll, so that they could read that and understand. As warriors, yes, you are protecting humanity, and it’s a glamorous thing in that respect, yet all of you are affected by the killing.
I feel like that makes Booker’s exile all the more poignant. That these people who have been forced to kill so many times, can’t kill the person who betrayed them so profoundly, and that relationship has to continue to exist, even if it’s on pause.
I just loved that moment when I first read it in the script. It really moved me. The fact that the greatest punishment is to have to be alone. And it’s really Booker who was the one that’s had a full family and knows the cost and the pain of losing them, and has been living with that. And now, this found family that has sustained him, he’s lost that as well. It did feel profound to me and emotional to me.
One thing that I really loved was the restrained but still very compelling action aesthetic. The superheroes don’t really have traditional powers—they still have human limitations, in some respects. How did you decide to approach that?
My vision was really to have this feel grounded and real, despite the fantastical conceit, because I felt so connected with the characters. And the fact that they can still be hurt, I really loved that. I thought that that allowed an audience to be able to connect with them as well.
For me, the best action sequences have a story to tell. They have a beginning, middle and end. They’re character driven and they’re emotional. And that keeps you invested in the action. I needed the actors to be really doing the fighting and the stunts, so that I could tell those stories through their face, and their actions, and their physicality. Letting the actors know, “You guys are going to be doing this,” and trusting that they would put the work in that they needed to do to be able to embody that.
I didn’t want to suddenly get to the action scenes and suddenly the camera’s up high, or low, or swinging around unnaturally. I wanted it to feel like we were capturing it in real time. We shot almost everything at eye level, so that you’re in it, and it feels like a fight. I wanted it to be close, wanted it to be handheld, but also, longer takes so that I’m not trying to hide bad moments, I’m not trying to hide stunt doubles. I want you to be able to marvel at the athleticism, most notably, of these women, these warriors, and their skills, because that is part of who they are as characters.
The movie ends with such a big cliffhanger. Are we going to get to see more Old Guard movies?
It is wholly up to the audience if they want to see more. I mean, Greg, his story of The Old Guard has always been a trilogy. And the new one actually just came out a couple of weeks ago. So, I know where the story’s going, and it’s pretty great. And I know that Nile has a love story, which is pretty dope. But it’s up to the audience. So, if the audience wants more, then there’s absolutely more story to tell.
I was reading the open letter from BLD PWR about making Hollywood more inclusive, and I noticed that you were a signatory. Could you talk a little bit about what changes you think need to be made in order to make Hollywood a better place for black creatives.
I signed under the letter because I believed everything that was spoken there. Hollywood has absolutely been complicit in what is happening in the world. I mean, film and television are so powerful. They can absolutely affect perception and culture. And for decades, the negative images that have been put out—they both weaponize our blackness, but there’s also been an invisibility, certainly with black women, that also affects the way that the world perceives us.
So there is such incredible work to be done. I mean, the list is so long, but Lord knows that we need people of color in these rooms that are making decisions, because there is a sameness of what gets green-lit and allowed to be put into the world. When that occasional film gets put out, and it’s from a white perspective, we can tell there’s a lack of authenticity, there are things missing. The majority of work that comes out, and the majority of our images are coming from a white lens, which has not lived our lives and it’s not bringing our perspective.
We should be able to tell our own stories and bring our authenticity and truthfulness. I’ve seen a black character being rewritten to be less heroic, to have less agency. I literally saw stage direction go from a character being heroic to, “She cowers. She, on instinct, runs away.”
And you wonder, “What? How does that happen? What is your thought process to take a black character and pull their heroism? It’s because you don’t see us like that.” I happened to be in the room, and that is very rare, and in a position of power to say, “Hell no, we are not doing that. Restore the character as they were originally intended.”
[You’ll see] the character of color suddenly just disappear from the narrative. Why does this black character have no black friends? Is not dating anybody black, does not have any family. How does that happen? It happens because we are not in the rooms calling out that BS. So foremost, we need to be in every single room. And not just one of us, because too many of us are the only one in the room, and it is hella lonely, and you are the only one fighting. There needs to be multiple.
And we just assume that when you shoot, you’ve got LAPD there. I don’t know this officer. I don’t know what’s in his head. Maybe he’s a good guy, but maybe he’s not. I would rather have people that I can vet in the same way that I vet my transpo captain, or my DP, or my editor. I want to vet the cops that are on my set, that are going to be interacting, not only with me and my crew, but interacting with the people in the community where I’m shooting. As I said, the list is incredibly long, but real change has to happen, and it has to sustain itself.
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