Love and Basketball (2000): Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Promising Directing Debut (Sundance)

Sundance Film Fest 2000 (Premieres)–Debutante filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood shows an admirable command of film’s technical facilities in her feature debut, Love and Basketball, a smooth, slick romantic drama about two black athletes living in Baldwin Hills, L.A.’s affluent black neighborhood. Aiming to please at all costs, Prince-Bythewood’s narrative is too neat and its fairy-tale resolution too pat, but picture is so well-directed and lead performance by Sanaa Lathan so charismatic that audiences will overcome these flaws and root for the central romantic duo.

 

Our grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

 

The filmmaker looks back on the movie every studio in Hollywood said no to before Spike Lee said yes and reveals the feedback that has stuck with her years later.

With the right handling and marketing, New Line Spring release (April 21) could become a hot date movie, embraced by upscale black viewers, with some crossover appeal among white twentysomething urbanites, possibly reaching the B.O. of such recent black efforts as The Best Man and Soul Food.

Spike Lee proves himself to be a major force in the new African-American cinema, expanding its range way beyond inner-city and crime dramas. Last year, he was instrumental in setting his nephew Malcom Lee’s romantic comedy, The Best Man, at Universal, and here functions as producer (with partner Sam Kitt) of Prince-Bythewood romantic drama about the friendship, rivalry and love of two youngsters sharing an unquenchable passion for basketball.

Spanning close to two decades, yarn is divided into four segments, or quarters as they’re called her. The first, set in 1981, begins with Monica and Quincy as children, when Monica moves in next door to Quincy’s house. Shocked to realize that Monica can play ball better than the boys, Quincy asks her to be his girl, and the two engage in a ceremonial kiss. But the bond lasts for only a minute, when Monica is outraged by Quincy’s macho attitude.

The second quarter, set in 1988, finds the couple in high school. Quincy follows in the footsteps of his famous father, Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert), an NBA player. And Monica is forced to face an arrogant Quincy, who has his pick of colleges–and attractive women. The two are clearly attracted to each other, and tension builds up to a highly erotic sex scene.

It’s in this segment that scripter begins to develop her chief theme: Monica’s struggle to become a bright, independent woman, deviating from the subservient housewife played by her mother (a splendid Alfre Woodard), and refusing to conform to the ladylike type, imposed on her by her sister and even her coach. Monica is confused by her coach’s remark that the best player has to behave like a lady on the court.

Main dramatic conflicts occur in the third (and best) quarter, which depicts how Monica and Quincy continue to pursue their respective basketball careers as college sweethearts. Taking center stage, Quincy, upset by his the suffering of his mother (Debbie Morgan), is forced to realize that his adulterous dad is not exactly an idol. Quincy is also let down by Monica, who can’t be there with him due to a curfew imposed on her before a big game. Determined to drop out of school and turn pro, Quincy breaks off their romance.

Cut to Barcelona, Spain, 1993, where Monica is an oversees athlete, fully immersed in her career. But professional fulfillment comes with a price, isolation and loneliness, and earlier doubts, whether “being all about ball” is worth losing the love of her life, prevents her from enjoying her success. Missing family and friends, Monica returns home, only to find Quincy engaged to be married in two weeks.

At this point, narrative follows the path of a screwball comedy, giving a twist to the convention of how to prevent a lover from marrying the wrong spouse. Unlike Hollywood chestnuts, here, it’s a sexually aggressive woman who pursues her man, opening his eyes as to his true love just days before it’s too late.

Storytelling is not always exciting, but a more serious problem is that yarn is not deep enough in showing the meaning of basketball for Monica–unlike most sports pix, one never gets the idea that playing ball is a matter of life and death. In its insistence to gratify the audience with an elegant movie at all costs, narrative resolves all too tidily its strains, be they intergenerational tensions between Quincy and his father, Monica and her mother, Monica and her coach, and so on. Love and Basketball is the kind of Cinderella story, where at the end the heroine gets it all, love and marriage, family and career, a movie where commercial considerations must have dictated the yarn’s shape and structure.

That said, there’s no doubt Prince-Bythewood is a gifted director: Love and Basketball is so suave, graceful and technically accomplished that it’s hard to believe it reps a first effort. Roundly impressive, production values, from lensing to costuming to score, all contribute to a glossy package.

Helmer is deft with her cast, coaxing appealing performances from two leads: Epps and particularly Lathan whose good looks and acting skill guarantee a major Hollywood career. Support cast is equally deft: Pic is sprinkled with standout character perfs from Woodard and Morgan, as the two loving, traditional mothers, and Haysbert, as the philandering hubby.

The filmmaker looks back on the movie every studio in Hollywood said no to before Spike Lee said yes and reveals the feedback that has stuck with her years later.

Effortlessly erotic in a way that most films (black or white), are not, Love and Basketball features a number of exciting sex scenes that may make it a hot date movie.

Credits

A New Line release of a 40 Acres and a Mule Filmmworks production. Produced by Spike Lee and Sam Kitt. Executive producers, Andrew Z. Davis, jay Stern, Cynthia Guidry. Directed, written by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Camera (DeLuxe, color), Reynaldo Villalobos; editor, Terilyn Shropshire; music, Terence Blanchard; production design, Jeff Howard; costume design, Ruth Carter; sound (Dolby/SDDS); casting, Aisha Coley.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 124 Minutes.

Cast

Monica Wright……Sanaa Lathan
Quincy McCall………Omar Epps
Camille Wright….Alfre Woodard
Zeke McCall…..Dennis Haysbert
Mona McCall…….Debbie Morgan
Nathan Wright…Harry J. Lennix
Young Monica………Kyla Pratt
Young Quincy…Glenndon Chatman

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