Love and Basketball
2000, PG-13, 124 min. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood. Starring Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Harry Lennix, Dennis Haysbert, Debbie Morgan, Alfre Woodard, Glenndon Chatman, Kyla Pratt.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 21, 2000
Even the staunchest proponents of Spike Lee's work have to admit that, by and large, the brother just doesn't get romantic love. If only by proxy, this debut film by young writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood offers viewers a peek at an intriguing alternative reality in which hitherto unseen tenderness and nuance intrude upon Lee's jaundiced view of affaires du coeur. Actually, it's a bit unfair to define the precociously gifted Prince-Blythewood in terms of another artist -- even so obvious a role model. Though her ambitious storytelling structures, bawdy, hip-hop-infused humor, and flair for experimental camerawork are all influenced by Lee, whose 40 Acres and a Mule production company financed this film, she's just as clearly a director with potential for major success on her own. As the title suggests, our story draws parallels between two all-consuming “games” that can exert antagonistic, possibly even mutually exclusive pulls on the heart. Monica (Lathan) and Quincy (Epps) are childhood pals from an upscale African-American neighborhood in L.A. Two things bind them together for life: a sweet, simmering-beneath-the-surface devotion to each other that belies their overt rivalry and an (at least) equal passion for hoops. But despite the similarity of their on-court skills, Quincy's Y chromosome and parental heritage -- his dad's a former NBA player -- make his drive for the brass ring of pro success a lot easier every step of the way. As if this weren't galling enough for Monica, Quincy's tendency to see his own “it's all about ball” attitude as natural and hers as selfish and emasculating adds further strain to their on-and-off romantic involvement. About this romance: As predictable and arbitrary as Quincy and Monica's heel-dragging journey toward amorous bliss often is, Lathan and Epps infuse a startling amount of unforced erotic juice and emotional depth into their portrayals of the star-crossed jock paramours. As much lip service as we pay to the friends-make-the-best-lovers ideal, it's rare indeed to see that notion so vividly realized onscreen. Another distinctive virtue of Prince-Blythewood's film is her character's groundedness in family, a unifying force that helps overcome the story's episodic sprawl over the 15-year period it covers. I especially enjoyed Woodard's satisfyingly complex performance as Monica's mom, a woman with the perverse ability to love everything about her daughter but the defining passion of her life. Heysbert is also strong and affecting as Quincy's flawed but essentially decent father, who undergoes a painful transition from idolized role model to the embodiment of everything his son doesn't want to be. But the most compelling reason to see Love & Basketball is the excellent starring debut by Lathan. I can't imagine a more credible touchstone for young women struggling to reconcile classical girlie concerns with equally strong desires for fulfillment through sports or other nontraditional forms of adventure and derring-do. Stubbornly, even angrily resisting the idea that a woman's best life strategy is addition through subtraction, she makes a nervy decision to live as though the “hard choices” model of female existence was already a relic of the pre-feminist Dark Ages. The fact that the blatantly thumbtacked-on happy ending plays as unvarnished fairy tale adds a definite bittersweet tang of irony. But then, hasn't romance always been about imagining a better world than the one we've got?