I wanted to make a black When Harry Met Sally,” Gina Prince-Bythewood told the Hollywood Reporter, reflecting on her debut film Love & Basketball. In the 20 years since its release, the film has served as a cultural reference point for black audiences.
The story begins in 1981, with neighbours and childhood sweethearts Quincy (Glenndon Chatman) and Monica (Kyla Pratt) battling it out on the court. “I’m gon’ be in the NBA. You gon’ be my cheerleader,” says 11-year-old Quincy with a smirk. Monica replies with a slam dunk. A few days later they share a cute first kiss. This dynamic repeats itself throughout the film, which follows the older Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) as they bounce through high school, college and into their respective careers as professional athletes. It is as much a basketball movie as it is a love story, curious about the couple’s potential both on and off the court.
Produced by Spike Lee, the film features an impressive ensemble cast of black actors who were, in the year 2000, still establishing themselves. After seeing Regina Hall in Malcolm D Lee’s The Best Man, Prince-Bythewood cast her as Monica’s girlie older sister. (Hall wouldn’t carry a romcom until 2012’s Think Like a Man.) Gabrielle Union has a small role as a flirty fellow high schooler who competes with Monica for Quincy’s attention – she’d have her break as a cheerleading captain in Bring It On later that year. Even Tyra Banks pops up, three years before she launched the reality TV series America’s Next Top Model.
There’s flirtatiousness and wit in a cheeky sequence of strip basketball, comedy in a scene that sees Quincy ask Monica if she’s going to the school dance with “Spalding” (Prince-Bythewood cuts to the branded basketball sitting in Monica’s lap) and electric chemistry between Lathan and Epps, who were secretly dating at the time. Still, to call the film a romantic comedy would be a misnomer. The impulse to claim it as such is likely due to the dearth of black romantic comedies, a genre whose whiteness is particularly glaring. In 1997, Love Jones and Soul Food were released, with How Stella Got Her Groove Back following in 1998, and The Best Man in 1999. Love & Basketball, which came out in 2000, occupies a slightly different space.
Too often dismissed as a soppy chick flick, the film is a drama that is clear-eyed and serious about female ambition and gender roles. Monica’s father and later her college basketball coach tell her off for losing her head, penalising her for the intensity and aggression of her focus. “I was just showing emotion,” she tells her dad through gritted teeth. When she refuses to break curfew to comfort Quincy, she is similarly chastised for her dedication to her game.
Monica also clashes with her traditional, stay-at-home mother Camille (the brilliant Alfre Woodard), refusing to trade her basketball jersey for an apron. Camille smiles approvingly when her teenage daughter dons a tight white dress for the school dance, but Monica struggles to be “ladylike”, fidgeting uncomfortably and sitting with her legs apart as though she were courtside. As an adult, Monica needles at her mother’s choices, criticising her constant deference to men. Hot with anger, Camille slaps her, and Monica’s expression transforms into that of a little girl.
Prince-Bythewood – whose credits include The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights and Netflix’s The Old Guard – was a former ball player herself. When she wrote the film’s first draft, the Women’s National Basketball Association did not yet exist (it was founded in 1996). “When I was on the field, I was never told to slow down. I was told to run faster, be more aggressive, play harder, go after it,” she wrote in an essay for the Lenny Letter newsletter in 2016. Sports helped her find her swagger, and so it makes sense she wrote a movie in which the handsome jock chose the cool, low-key tomboy over the glamorous cheerleader.
The film’s seriousness is its enduring strength. When a swooning cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” by the R&B singer Maxwell plays as Monica loses her virginity, the scene is both respectful and romantic. Quincy unrolls a condom; Monica verbally articulates her consent. The tenderness with which Prince-Bythewood treats Monica’s desires is what makes the film so moving. In the film’s climax, Monica insists the now-engaged Quincy play her in a one-on-one match, two weeks before his wedding. The stakes feel huge when she insists, with utter solemnity, that if she loses it’s because deep down he wants her to stop him from getting married. “I’ll play you… for your heart,” she tells him, a perfect line, as cheesy and quotable as Nora Ephron’s “I’ll have what she’s having”.
“Love & Basketball” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation