My Black History Month viewing kicked off with Love & Basketball, the sweet and realistically textured romantic drama that was Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut.
Love & Basketball centers on the years of history between aspiring basketball stars Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps). They first meet as children, where they set up an essential pattern for the conflict–and chemistry–that will follow them for the rest of the movie. They’re drawn to each other and admire each other’s skills at the game–an admiration the other people in their lives don’t always give them–but they’re both volatile and unable to talk out their problems. Monica has a particular view of herself–athletic, driven, independent–and she prioritizes it over her relationship with Q; he then emotionally lashes out in response, doing his best to drive her away. Both of them have to learn to fight for their relationship. You could say that they treat too many encounters as though they’re win or lose, and their arc throughout the movie is figuring out how to live in the complex middle-ground of a tie. One of the movie’s strengths is covering a long enough time span that they can plausibly work out how to compromise–with each other and with themselves–and confront their problems more directly.
The romance, while pretty good, is less of a selling point than the milieu. Prince-Bythewood captures the way Monica and Q are, for years, immersed in the basketball world, and the film is sharply but subtly observant about the way that world is gendered. In the years before the WNBA, Monica can have stardom in Europe but not in America, finally testing her passion by making it something that strands her far from home. The crowds at her games are always smaller. Her fellow students in college don’t view her as a superstar; unless they’re on the team, they haven’t even heard of her. Meanwhile, through Q, we get the struggles of trying to figure out when to go pro. We see him dealing with an injury that sidelines him right as he might be finding a home with the Lakers. And ultimately, Prince-Bythewood lets their views diverge, with the two of them growing to care about basketball in different ways and realize that all along, they loved it for different reasons. It’s this grubby, sports-driven world, both famous and fame-adjacent, that makes for an especially memorable movie. It’s a movie about sports that benefit from not being a sports movie: the story it can tell is just one of athletes in general, a valuable slice-of-life mostly outside of games and underdogs.