“I’m a ballplayer.”
I’ve talked to you about movies that I love and then watch again only to find my admiration grow. But recently I got to sit down to revisit “Love & Basketball” (2000), a film that I had seen and gave a passing grade when it came out, but I had forgotten about. Shame on me. A few days ago, I was talking to a terrific director about preconceived expectations when you sit down to experience a film and how they tinge your perception. I’ve never been a big fan of basketball and the idea of a love story involving that sport had definitely created in me a bias against it even before the credits rolled. Double shame on me. When I think of all the things I’ve not fully appreciated in life because I pre-judged them or didn’t give them my full attention, I can kick myself. Well, fortunately with cinema you can redeem yourself.
What a difference 20 years make. I’m head over heels in love with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s debut film. And although it is very specifically about sports, it’s about someone’s passion to do something that she feels strongly about, and doing it in a society that is not ready to give her that claim. It’s a plea for the right for every young girl – regardless of race – to become whomever she wants to be. It’s about ambition, perseverance, commitment and grit – and how those qualities are perfectly okay to be had by women. It’s about gender roles – and how we have cast certain molds – and they need to be broken. It’s smartly made, and the love aspect is very moving.
“The kernel of the idea was that I wanted to make a black ‘When Harry Met Sally,” mentioned director Prince Bythewood last April to the Hollywood Reporter to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary. “I love that film, and there was a dearth or nonexistence of love stories made with black characters. It was something that I wanted to see reflected; I wanted to see myself reflected. I also wanted to tell a story that put into the world that women could have both — love and career.”
Spanning 20 years, it tells the story of Monica – told appropriately in four quarters. It starts when her parents move to Los Angeles from Atlanta in 1981, and she’s 11 years old. Quincy, the next door neighbor, is playing ball with his friends and is shocked that Monica can play. “Girls can’t play no ball,” he exclaims. She proves him wrong – playing as tough as the boys – even better. “I told you I was nice,” she declares. “I’m going to be the first girl in the NBA.” “No, I’m gonna be in the NBA,” Quincy affirms. “You’re gonna be my cheerleader.” They have a shoving match and accidentally Monica skids onto the ground – injuring her cheek and leaving a permanent scar.
We will follow them through high school, college (both end up going to USC) and their professional careers after. What the love story provides is a way to contrast her trajectory against his. Both are extremely talented athletes, but Quincy’s career path is paved in front of him. Prince-Bythewood cross-cuts between his high school games that are crowded and cheered – to Monica’s, that are sparsely attended. He has recruiters falling over him and he has the role model of a father who was a professional player. Monica doesn’t have a professional league to look forward to – and her prospects are also jeopardized by her incapability to contain her anger. She thinks she’s blown her college prospects. At home, she has a mother who hopes she will “grow out of this tomboy phase.”
It’s clear Monica and Quincy love each other since the day they shoved one another in the playground, but they have kept a platonic distance until a high school dance which they attend with other partners. Prince-Bythewood does a touching nod to “Romeo and Juliet” with the adjacent windows looking at each other’s bedrooms like balconies. Their first sexual encounter is shot with maturity and sensitivity.
It’s the women who teach Monica the best lessons by being tough. At USC, Monica feels her coach is never cutting her a break. “You think I’d go hoarse for a player with no potential? When I ignore you… then you worry,” she’s told. And her starting point guard rival, Sidra, when they find themselves playing in Europe because the US doesn’t have yet a professional league, reminds her that following her dreams is what’s important. “We just played in a championship game. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this.” Her mother as well (played by the magnificent Alfre Woodard) will intervene at the right moment. Sanaa Latham as Monica is glorious in this.
Spike Lee produced this film. Gina Prince-Bythewood had been turned down from every studio when she was trying to make “Love & Basketball.” She never gave up.
Monica : “It’s a trip, you know? When you’re a kid, you-you see the life you want, and it never crosses your mind that it’s not gonna turn out that way.”
Available to stream on Hulu and to rent on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Apple TV, Redbox, DIRECTV and FandangoNOW
Written and Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard and Dennis Haysbert
Bringing “Love & Basketball” to the Screen
Prince-Bythewood, a former UCLA track runner who played basketball in high school, was working as a TV writer in the mid-1990s. But she longed to tell a semi-autobiographical story about a female baller. She quit her job, wrote the script and began shopping it around. “Every day, my agent would say, ‘Another one turned it down,'” Prince-Bythewood remembers. “Studios gave feedback that the film was ‘too soft,’ that we needed [scenes] where a character is chasing her husband with a knife.” Her script somehow reached the heads of the Sundance Institute. She was invited to the directors lab, where she cast multiple readings. One in particular blew away Sam Kitt, then the head of Spike Lee’s production company — 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks — and subsequently wound up in the hands of New Line Cinema. (Lee signed on to Prince-Bythewood’s project as a producer. He worked with New Line Cinema on “Bamboozled,” also released in 2000.) With New Line Cinema, Prince-Bythewood was able to explore the lives of her protagonists, Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), on her terms. The movie follows the childhood neighbors as they move from competitors on the court to confidants and companions off of it. Some scenes stick with us, like when Monica and Quincy share their first kiss before a bike ride to school, and, of course, when Monica plays Quincy in a game of one-on-one for his heart two weeks before he’s due to wed another woman. But what makes the film so indelible is that it shows a female athlete challenging her partner, her sport and the status quo without being painted as a shrew, undesirable or any other limiting descriptor. “What’s revolutionary is that this amazing black woman can love both [basketball and her partner] equally and still be a woman,” says “Queen & Slim” screenwriter Lena Waithe. “She could still be herself.” Monica goes on to play in the burgeoning WNBA, which was founded in 1996 and didn’t exist when Prince-Bythewood started writing the script. Quincy has an injury-marred stint as a Laker. Nevertheless, they prove to be more than leads in an early-aughts hoops flick or relatable characters in a coming-of-age love story. They’ve become archetypes, inspirations and representatives of lives we knew but had rarely seen onscreen. (espn.com)
The Making of “Love & Basketball”
“When I first started out writing it, my goal was to do a black ‘When Harry Met Sally,’” said Prince-Bythewood with a laugh. “I love that movie, but I wasn’t seeing myself in movies like that, in love stories. And in addition to that, there was a semi-autobiographical story in my head about a black girl who wanted to be the first girl in the NBA. “As an artist, you hope you’re making art that resonates and reaches people, but you never know,” she added. “So the fact that 20 years later we’re still talking about my first film is humbling and amazing to me. Especially when I think back to trying to get it made and knowing how many times it was dead in the water.” Prince-Bythewood says executive producer Spike Lee had a major impact on her ability to get the film made. “I think Spike’s involvement was probably the thing that allowed New Line to say, ‘Just let her direct her script’ because I’m sure in their minds if I started messing up, they knew Spike could step in and ‘save me.’ Thankfully I didn’t need that.” “I go on the first day, wish everybody luck and then I’m out,” said Lee, of his producing role. “I don’t want them to feel like ‘Spike Lee is looking over my shoulder.’ If I don’t have confidence in them I wouldn’t make the film with them. “It’s always been my mindset that if I made it [in the movie business], I was going to try to bring as many people along with me. Gina is one of many people in the last four decades, and she’s very talented. I knew what it feels like trying to get that first feature made having gone through high holy hell to raise $175,000 for ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’” (latimes.com)
Writer/ Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on Casting “Love & Basketball”
“Anytime you see women playing ball on TV or in movies, it was so wack that it set women in sports back years. I promised myself I would never do that: If I was going to make a basketball movie, I’d do it right. We laugh about it today, but Sanaa had just done this shoot for Vibe [in 1998] and it was a bikini shoot. In my head I was like, “This is so not Monica.” Sanaa was pretty good, but she’d never picked up a basketball in her life…We’d get close, the acting was on point, and then we’d go out on the court and they can’t ball. How many people really grow up playing ball? How many women? Especially back then. It took many people off the list. We wanted to go outside the box too. Marion Jones read. This was before — what happened with her devastated me. She was a hero. Serena Williams [was floated], but she either read and I wasn’t there or she wasn’t able to read…There was one other woman, Niesha Butler, and she was a top recruit out of high school, [played at] Georgia Tech. She was a model, she acted, had good chemistry with Omar and could ball her ass off. It came down to those two. We put Sanaa with a basketball coach and Niesha with an acting coach. They were on these parallel tracks for months…I couldn’t make a decision. I get a call from Sanaa’s dad, my mentor, [Peabody and Tony award-winning producer] Stan Lathan, and he says I was damaging his daughter by putting her through this. Sanaa was training every day for three months with no promise of a part, and same with Niesha and the acting coach. Finally, my husband, Reggie, said, “Are you making a love story or a basketball movie?” I realized it’s a love story set in the world of basketball. You could fake a jump shot, but you can’t fake a close-up. I had to go with the actor. I called Sanaa to tell her she got the part and she said I sounded disappointed, like I had to give her the part. I said, “I need you to come to the office, we’re gonna sit and talk.” She said no. And I was so mad! I was like, “I’m giving you this part, this is my baby, and you can’t find the time to come talk to me?” But she put so much into it and she was exhausted and it wasn’t a celebratory moment for her. That’s kind of our relationship. It wasn’t contentious. We can joke and laugh about it now.” (espn.com)
On the Legacy and Impact of “Love & Basketball”
Ruth E. Carter, costume designer: “Part of why this film has endured was because Gina ensured that it was authentic. Like having Monica wear socks and slides after practice or game scenes because athletes need their toes to breathe. That’s the norm, and that was all Gina — she made Monica relatable.”
Napheesa Collier, 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year and All-Star, Minnesota Lynx forward: “As a black girl, I could identify with Monica. It’s usually a story about white people. My mom’s white, and I obviously grew up around half my family being white, but it’s really cool to see people on the screen that looked like me and play the sport that I play.”
Diamond DeShields, 2019 WNBA All-Star, Chicago Sky guard: “I admired seeing an African American love story. Love between two young successful African American athletes was something we weren’t seeing [on film] at the time. [Like when Gabrielle Union, who played Shawnee — who was dating Quincy at the time — says to Monica,] “I didn’t know Nike made dresses,” at the dance. Not knowing how to sit when you wear a dress, wearing sweats all the time because that’s what makes you comfortable, that resonates with female athletes. There are expectations put on us as women in sports. Monica was beautifully played and beautifully written, so it’s a lot of people’s favorite movie.”
Sheryl Swoopes, Naismith and Women’s Basketball halls of fame, first WNBA player signed: “I was just like, “That is so my story.” That was my initial reaction. I thought it was well written, but it was very true for so many women in sports, not just basketball players. I played ball, I had a child, I took some time off and then when I came back to play, my husband at the time was there in the stands taking care of the baby while I played. I’m like, “Someone had me in mind.” Well, I know I didn’t get a check, so … [Laughs]”
Nneka Ogwumike, 2016 WNBA MVP and champion, Los Angeles Sparks forward: “It’s an incredibly relevant movie and a testament: showing a main character as a woman playing sports who ends up being more successful than her partner. It shows the empowerment of a woman who’s determined to do what she wants to do.” (espn.com)
About Writer and Director Gina Prince-Bythewood
Gina Prince-Bythewood is an American film director and screenwriter. She studied at UCLA Film School, where she received the Gene Reynold’s Scholarship for Directing and the Ray Stark Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Undergraduate. Upon her graduation in 1991, she was immediately hired as a writer on the television series “A Different World” (1987). She continued to write for network television on series such as “Felicity” (1998), “South Central” (1994), “Courthouse” (1995), and “Sweet Justice” (1994) before making the transition to directing. After five years working in TV as a writer on shows, Prince-Bythewood wrote her first film, 2000’s “Love & Basketball.” Prince-Bythewood said, “With ‘Love & Basketball,’ I played ball my whole life and did track at UCLA. So, I’m an athlete. And it was very important for me to get it right.” The film was developed at the Sundance Institute’s directing and writing lab. She won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and a Humanitas Prize for her work on the film. Her other directing credits include the HBO film “Disappearing Acts” (2000). She directed the feature film, “The Secret Life of Bees,” which was adapted from the best-selling book by Sue Monk Kidd. It was released by Fox Searchlight in October 2008, and debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and Urbanworld Film Festival that same year. In 2014, Prince-Bythewood directed “Beyond the Lights,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Prince-Bythewood began work on the film in 2007, before work on 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees.” The film premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Other writing credits include 2017’s “Before I Fall,” which was based on a young adult novel, and premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. (allamericanspeakers.com) Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood are moving into the Disney Television Studios fold with a first-look deal with the new Touchstone Television (formerly Fox 21 Television Studios). The multi-year writing and producing deal covers television projects for broadcast and streaming platforms via the duo’s Undisputed Cinema production company. The deal is the first for Touchstone following the Disney Television Studios rebrand…Undisputed Cinema produces timely and timeless character-driven stories aimed to challenge audiences’ perspectives in different ways. The production banner’s stories show humanity on-screen and create deep connections driven to build empathy between their characters and their viewers. Bythewood and Prince-Bythewood are longtime advocates for equal representation in film and television on-screen and behind-the-scenes, with their mentorships of emerging writers and directors, Bythewood’s industry town-halls on systemic racism, and Prince-Bythewood’s funding a scholarship for African American students in the film program at UCLA, her alma mater…Prince-Bythewood most recently directed the action drama feature, “The Old Guard,”starring Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne. The pic has made the list of the Top 10 most popular Netflix films of all time with Prince-Bythewood becoming the first Black female director on the list…Most recently for television, Prince-Bythewood directed the pilot for Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger.” (deadline.com)