Love & Basketball (United States, 2000)
Love & Basketball is, as one can infer from the title, about love and basketball. The film follows the lives of two next-door neighbors, one male and one female, from their first meeting on the court at the age of 11 until a fateful night a dozen years in the future. Through all this time, their passion for basketball is equaled only by their passion for each other, but it's never clear for either of them which takes precedence - the game or the relationship. In the final analysis, the feature debut of writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (backed by producer Spike Lee) succeeds better as a sports movie than as a romance. While the sports clichés are kept to a minimum in favor of a Hoop Dreams-type view of basketball, the love story follows a familiar trajectory.
The two protagonists are Monica Wright (Sanaa Latham) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps). She is determined to become the first woman ever to enter the NBA; he is driven by the need to better the accomplishments of his father, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), a star for the Los Angeles Clippers. Love & Basketball is divided into "quarters" like a basketball game, with each segment chronicling a different period in Monica and Quincy's lives. The first quarter, set in 1981, details their meeting and their brief relationship as an 11-year old "couple." The second quarter skips ahead seven years to high school, where both Monica and Quincy are stars. However, since he's a male and she's a female, his future in the sport appears to be set while hers is uncertain. When it comes to choosing a college, she has to wait anxiously to hear from a recruiter while he plans a press conference to announce his choice. Quarter #3 transpires during the pair's freshman year at college, when she faces pressure from a demanding coach and he struggles with salacious revelations about his father. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the film shows the degree to which Monica and Quincy's dreams are realized both on and off the court.
Although Love & Basketball's story does not pack an emotional wallop, it tells an engaging tale about how the things that seem to be the most important in life aren't always so. On the surface, that might appear to be a trite message, but Prince-Bythewood's screenplay has two elements to distinguish it: vivid characters and a female perspective on a genre that is typically dominated by testosterone-saturated motion pictures. Along with the yet-to-be-released Girlfight, Love & Basketball affirms that sports (and sports movies) are not the lone purview of men.
Prince-Bythewood makes a valiant attempt to balance the screen time given to Quincy with that accorded to Monica, as well as to afford an equal hearing to the complexities of their individual stories. However, it doesn't take long for the viewer to recognize that Love & Basketball is really Monica's story. She is the better developed character and it's clear that the writer/director understands and sympathizes with her more than with Quincy. That's not to say that his character is ignored or constructed out of bits and pieces of other sports movie protagonists; Quincy is allowed to shine - just not as brightly as Monica.
Love & Basketball's structure offers a way to cover 12 years in one movie, but it is a little cumbersome. The movie feels longer than it needs to be, with segments #2 and #3 both dragging in places. Prince-Bythewood's approach also demands a certain level of suspension of disbelief. During the earliest time period, two younger actors (Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman) stand in for Monica and Quincy, but, starting with the high school years, it's Lathan and Epps. And, while Lathan might be able to pass for a teenager, there's no chance for Epps, who looks every day of his 26 years.
Both leads give strong performances, with Lathan's work slightly overshadowing Epps' (as one might expect from a movie in which the focus is slanted towards the female lead). There is a strong chemistry between them, and both are capable of carrying scenes on their own. They're also athletic enough to make the basketball scenes believable. The most impressive supporting performance is turned in by Dennis Haysbert, who plays Quincy's all-too-human father. As Monica's mother, Alfre Woodard is underused, although she does have one nice scene opposite Lathan. Also appearing are Harry J. Lennix as Monica's supportive father and Debbi Morgan as Quincy's long-suffering mother.
Even though every major cast member of Love & Basketball is black, the film is essentially color-blind. However, while race is a non-issue, gender is not. The film illustrates, among other things, the vast gulf of inequality that exists between male and female athletes. By dramatizing Monica and Quincy's lives in parallel, Pince-Bythewood is able to explore the inequities. Despite having the same drive, ambition, and passion, they cannot reach the same peak, nor are the plateaus along the way on the same level. For example, Monica's high school games are played in front of a sparse crowd while Quincy's take place in a packed gymnasium. Attention to details like this place Love & Basketball a step or two ahead of the competition. Although not a slam-dunk, it's a satisfying lay-up.
Love & Basketball (United States, 2000)
Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Debbi Morgan, Harry J. Lennix, Kyla Pratt, Glenndon Chatman
Screenplay: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cinematography: Reynaldo Villalobos
Music: Terence Blanchard
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
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