In the opening moments of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, three little boys are jaw-jacking about the skills of an NBA star. The good-natured trash-talking soundtracks their own missed shots as they ball on a half-court on the grounds of a pristine upper-class estate.
“I thought you said only girls moved in?” one of the kids asks of the new next-door neighbor who emerges from up the hill, wearing grubby jeans, a T-shirt, and a fitted cap, asking for a chance to join in the game.
The kids agree, and as that hat is removed, and the pressed, un-ponytailed hair of a young tomboy is revealed, they collectively groan in disapproval.
“Girls can’t play no ball!” one little boy gripes.
Then, young Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) — who dreams of being the first woman to play in the NBA — says words that hit as hard as that first layup she throws on a guy nearly twice her size: “Ball better than you.”
At its core, Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut has almost nothing to do with race, yet this film is undeniably black, delivering a subtle and significant message. But in many ways, that important narrative — dropping black folks in a tony, all-black area without explaining how they got there — was almost a sideshow to the message of girl power, told with brown faces.
Love & Basketball was Prince-Bythewood’s story. She’d been an athlete for as long as she could remember — she ran track for UCLA and played basketball all her life — and had yet to see a film that reflected her experience. Her movie was a romantic coming-of-age story divided up into four quarters (like a pro basketball game), and it introduced us to two things we’d never seen on the big screen before: unpretentious black wealth set in a predominantly black neighborhood and a female athlete who was no less of a woman because of her strength.
This was a film written and directed by a black woman — a novelty then, and still unique enough now that when it happens, it grabs a headline. (Last year, only three of 275 of the top-grossing films were directed by black women; Prince-Bythewood was one of them.)
“Honestly, I never set out to write a feminist mantra,” Prince-Bythewood said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “I wanted to put out in the world that we could have it all. I wanted to destroy the negative perception of a female athlete. I wanted to counter the stereotype of a female athlete. And I knew who I was, and who these women around me were, and it wasn’t what I was seeing in the media and television and film. I want and deserve the career and love, and you can have both. It doesn’t need to be a choice.”
Love & Basketball was released 15 years ago and debuted in the thick of a renaissance of movies that chronicled black coming-of-age stories — Juice, The Wood, and Crooklyn all came along before the 1990s closed out — but missing from Prince-Bythewood's plot was the downtrodden experience audiences had grown accustomed to. Instead, this sophisticated coming-of-age story was unmistakably about love. Finding it. Keeping it. And mastering your dreams in spite of it.
Love & Basketball covers a roughly 13-year friendship, from 1981 through the mid-'90s, of two well-to-do next-door neighbors, Monica and Quincy, bonded by their shared love of basketball. By the time they enter their senior year of high school, the two best friends realize they’re in love with each other, which is almost perfect considering they’re both heading to play hoops for USC.
The film uses gender equality issues in sports as a source of tension for their romance — the girls’ games in high school are sparsely attended in comparison to the boys’ games; and in college, the women adhere to a stricter curfew, while the men’s team has a much longer leash — and the adoration of their entire campus. Quincy doesn’t quite understand the of-the-moment struggles that his girlfriend faces, much less the idea that after college, her options to have a career playing ball professionally means she’ll have to live outside of the country. The WNBA is not yet an option for her, not to mention, taking that route would be far less lucrative than that of her boyfriend, who has tunnel vision while trying to chase his dad’s successful and celebrated NBA career. That divide is what ultimately ruins them by the time we hit the middle of the film: Quincy doesn’t understand the trials she faces as a female athlete, and he doesn’t seem keen on ever getting the point.
The only thing Monica loves more than Quincy is basketball — it’s what she’s good at and it’s the thing that keeps her focused. She’s unlike her ultrafeminine sister, who takes after their stay-at-home mother, both preferring lipstick, foundation, and sticking to the traditional lines of who a woman should be. The be-who-you-were-meant-to-be catalyst for Monica is her father, portrayed by actor Harry Lennix, who encourages his younger daughter to embrace her skill and passion as a ball player.
In Love & Basketball, the actual love story between
the two leads comes in second to the love a female athlete has with
fulfilling what seems to be an impossible dream — thriving in a field dominated by men.
“I wanted to put out this message in the world to be authentic to who you are,” says Prince-Bythewood. “That’s been a theme in all of my work. Just tapping into your authenticity and being brave enough to live in that.”
Love & Basketball's gender equality message plays as powerfully as the one of race — though the racial and economical messages are extremely subtle by comparison. And it hit just the right note, considering that by the time the film was released, the WNBA was in its third season and enthusiasm for a professional women’s basketball league was growing.
But it took a lot of convincing to even get Prince-Bythewood's story to the screen.
Like John Singleton with Boyz in the Hood and the Hughes brothers with Menace II Society, Prince-Bythewood was writing what she knew. She wasn’t trying to throw a ticker-tape parade, pointing to the idea that her characters could have grown up in the same types of neighborhoods that say, any of John Hughes characters did in his classic 1980s films, chief difference being that they were black. She wanted that very visual statement to be quiet, but recognized and normalized.
"I wanted to put it out in the world that these two characters travel the same way that anybody else travels both in career and in love," Prince-Bythewood said.
That was part of the problem with getting a round of yeses for Love & Basketball. Her subtle storytelling was, perhaps, too loud. There was no real reference point for a movie that focused on upper middle class people who happened to be black, and that proved to be a problem for Hollywood.
“When I went out with this film, this got turned down by everybody,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I kept getting a repetitive refrain that it was soft. That was the note and why people didn’t want to do it. I didn’t understand. How is it soft? Because no one’s getting chased by a knife or no one’s been shot? How do you address that?”
Lennix said that it took him years to fully understand the importance of the film’s representation of blackness — which directly feeds into Hollywood's hesitation to make it. Love & Basketball was a film that embraced dynamics we weren't accustomed to seeing: a black nuclear family who uplifted academic importance (college wasn't a dream here, it was a given).
“I think frequently, rather than dealing with black victimology that the people want to see something that's good tasting and good for them and reminds them that they have ... the human experience that anybody else has,” Lennix said. “I think that that was about a current time. It was about people who were recognizable, and unfortunately, I guess, there aren't more of those.”
Once Prince-Bythewood got turned down by nearly every studio in town, she went through a Sundance Institute program to workshop her screenplay. Organizers heard of her script and invited Prince-Bythewood to be a part of the program where she made minor adjustments and staged a reading. One key listener at that Sundance reading was Sam Kitt, an executive from Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule. He loved it, attached 40 Acres to it, and took it to New Line Cinema, which had released a string of successful House Party movies in the '90s.
She got the greenlight, but then Prince-Bythewood needed a star, and she was particularly sensitive to which actress could carry the lead role. Her mentor, longtime TV producer Stan Lathan, suggested his daughter Sanaa, who wasn’t a very recognizable face before 2000 rolled around. But he was confident his daughter could pull off the complexity Prince-Bythewood was looking for.
Lathan earned degrees at the University of California, Berkeley (English), and Yale (drama), and her body of work largely came from New York and Los Angeles stages. Her first film role was two years prior, in 1998, playing Wesley Snipes' mother in Blade, and she chased the next year with smaller roles in The Wood and The Best Man. Performing was in her blood, given that her father had worked on shows including Sanford and Son and Def Comedy Jam and her mother worked as a Broadway actress and dancer. Stan swore he wasn’t being biased by suggesting his daughter to Prince-Bythewood, who, before writing and directing this debut film, had cut her teeth working in television, namely on the long-running Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, where she worked as a writer.
Prince-Bythewood held an audition for Sanaa at the home of actor Hill Harper — who read the role of male lead Quincy — but it didn’t get off to the best start. “I walked in the door and she shows me this Vibe magazine spread that she just did which was like a bikini spread,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I was like, This is so not the character at all! I didn’t know how she was going to get the part, but she read and she was pretty good. I told her I would think about it. I left, and it’s funny because when she and I talk about it later, she was pissed off that I didn’t offer it to her there.”
New Line quickly agreed to Prince-Bythewood's first choice for the role of Quincy: Omar Epps, who, the writer-director noted, "was the man back then." Epps was a well-established actor, starring in films like 1993’s The Program, 1994’s Major League II, and 1995’s Higher Learning — all movies in which he portrayed athletes.
The studio informed the writer-director that if she went with a well-known actor for his part, she could choose whomever for Monica. After going through more than 700 actors and athletes, Prince-Bythewood said she realized that she didn’t have anybody else in mind other than Sanaa Lathan.
“I called her back and said, ‘You have the part for the reading.’ And I knew she would only be doing the reading because she had never touched a basketball in her life, and I would never hire a woman who couldn’t play ball for the film,” Prince-Bythewood said. “We did the rehearsal for the reading, and she was awful. Awful. And I was so freaked out that I went to my husband, and I said, 'I’ve got to fire her. Who can we get to do this in like an hour?' Racking our brains, we could not find anybody and finally we just have to go with her. I called her up and I was like, You have to bring it. And then she came to the reading and was amazing.”
Lathan hired a trainer and worked for three months so that she could deliver a true female basketball star. She filmed those scenes alongside actual athletes and said they often would look at her quizzically, trying to figure out how she landed a role playing a basketball player, but yet couldn’t hoop.
“I practiced for hours on my form,” Lathan said. "I practiced for hours on my layups. Dribbling. All of that. My form was really good. But if you actually put me in a real game? Forget about it.”
In the movie, Lathan’s now good friend Gabrielle Union played Shawnee, the sexy, feminine high school student who wanted to hook up with Quincy, while Monica was much more comfortable in sneakers than heels. “Normally we think of people losing themselves in roles, and we think of Charlize [Theron] in Monster or Halle [Berry] in Monster's Ball," Union said. "But what Sanaa had to do to become Monica ... Sanaa Lathan is a hippie. The fact that we all bought her, lock, stock, and barrel, as this gifted athlete says a lot about her level of preparation and her commitment to the role. 'Cause that ain't her. At all.”
Prince-Bythewood was blown away by Lathan’s work ethic and was floored by the chemistry she and Epps had on set. But what the director wasn’t immediately aware of: Lathan and Epps were secretly dating at the time.
“I think if I had known, I don't know if I would have taken that risk,” Prince-Bythewood said, laughing. “When people are dating or married, a lot of times they don't have chemistry on screen. What if they break up midway through shooting? But they were hot. There was this sweetness between them. And I just wanted to watch them.”
Seeing the burgeoning brown-skin love affair come to life on screen was restorative. It signaled change, especially considering that it came shortly after 1997’s Love Jones and 1999’s The Best Man, which both had audiences piercing their hands in the sky, celebrating the fact that contemporary black love was finally getting highlighted on screen.
“If you never see yourself, it’s going to affect your self-esteem and self-worth on a deep, unconscious level. I believe that,” Lathan said.
But there was a yielding of sorts for other black romance films. Two years later, Brown Sugar — which was directed by The Wood’s Rick Famuyiwa and also starred Lathan, pairing her with Taye Diggs — gave a similar amorous moment. (There have been several romantic comedies with largely black casts — most successfully 2012's Think Like a Man — but not simply a romance film.)
There wasn't a movie truly like Love & Basketball, arguably, until Prince-Bythewood's 2014 movie Beyond the Lights, which took five years to get to theaters. She still had to fight to get a comparable love story — featuring two young, black characters who were not set against a backdrop of environmental strife — on the big screen.
“I think it's the design of people who are comfortable seeing black people as desperate and despicable people — making victims of them, making pariahs of them,” Lennix said. “Why is there this fascination with black victimhood in slave movies and so forth? There's no reason for them, really, to empower black people with nutritious content when you can get them junk and have them buy it in even greater fervor.”
Love & Basketball's characters just happened to be black, yet it was placed into the distinct “urban” film genre. Besides a particularly saucy conversation between Monica and another basketball player while overseas — “Shit. Them Italian boys? They love them some black women,” the character cooed — race is never mentioned.
“It was an organic time to have that conversation because that was the only time the characters had that experience,” Epps said of the scene. “Black people, we’re not sitting around talking race in that regard. For Love & Basketball, that conversation didn’t need to happen because it was a bunch of brown people talking to brown people.”
Love & Basketball is now reaching a new generation of fans — at an event with high school students earlier this year to promote Beyond the Lights’ DVD release, Prince-Bythewood collected the loudest cheers when her young audience learned she wrote and directed the 2000 film.
The fact that Love & Basketball still resonates is telling. Filmmakers — Prince-Bythewood included — still struggle to get the greenlight for daring to make movies about black people that go against the grain. All these years later, news of a black female protagonist in a film is still a moment worth heralding.
“It is a feminist movie,” Lathan said. “It’s a new classic now. When I say classic, I mean something that stands the test of time and also crosses cultural lines. I’ve had old Asian men come up to me and be like, 'I love Love & Basketball.' It stands.”
Even though there was a campaign among fans to get a sequel going (a mockup of a poster announcing a new film that would hit theaters this Valentine’s Day circulated online), it’s never happening. Prince-Bythewood said the story ended how it was supposed to in its flash-forward epilogue: After years of being apart, Monica and Quincy eventually acknowledge they’re still in love with each other, marry, she goes on to star in WNBA (which now exists!), he’s the ex-athlete husband who is supportive of her career, and they have a daughter, who has a role model right at home — the kind her own mother couldn’t dream of having while growing up.
“I put out characters that I knew. I knew people that lived in Ladera Heights and View Park, where we shot. The houses that we used, black folks lived in them,” Prince-Bythewood said. "I consciously wanted to show a side of black life that hadn’t been shown.”
In June, the entire cast will reunite for the first time since its release, and present the film as part of the L.A. Film Festival to commemorate its 15th anniversary.
“One of the things that I care about so much is the fact that we can all be able to be reflected,” Lathan says. "Obviously, because I’m a black woman, I want to see myself up on that screen. And I’m so happy that this movie is that for young, black girls.”