Black History Month

Freeing Up the Lane Through Love & Basketball

When did we come up with this preconceived notion that movies – all of them, every last one – have to follow a basic narrative formula? I think back to classes in school, those that taught me about storytelling and narrative arcs, and every single lesson in plot came back to one thing: that damned triangle. You know the one; exposition rising action climax falling action denouement. I hate that triangle. And I hate that the common moviegoing experience is widely made or broken by a film’s ability to stay the course. I suppose that’s why we all love Star Wars, isn’t it?

love and basketballThis thought leads me to another, somewhat related question: Why is it that empathetic films are faulted for their realism? Plenty of times, I’ve watched a film, basked in how human it feels, and read a review afterward that then knocks said film due to its unadulterated kindness, its ability to breathe. Why should one of the most empathetic films of all time – Gina Prince-Bythewood’s brilliant Love & Basketball – follow this static plot structure when it most certainly doesn’t need to? I reject this impulse. I hereby denounce the triangle.

The story of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) works just fine as a cascading, alluring tale of two Black basketball players who love each other and love the game, though not necessarily always in that order. For Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut to be a total success, it needs not one single falling action or denouement. Her film is about relationships, with people and with passions, and thus feels like a relationship. To follow a blueprint of any kind would be to render it ineffective; to remain structured would eradicate any semblance of authenticity from it entirely. 

Though Black love stories had seen a surge in prominence, if not popularity, during the late 90s – Love Jones, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and The Best Man were all released within the ’97 to ’99 window – Prince-Bythewood wanted to make something different. Something that represented a different kind of true love story — the kind hopeless romantics dream about, and the kind that might feel familiar, but to people that looked like her. When The Ringer’s Jordan Ligons spoke with the director for the film’s 20th anniversary back in April, she recalled the director telling her that when she started writing the film, “her inspiration was When Harry Met Sally… but with brown faces.” She broke a mold in that respect, as well as in telling a love story that wasn’t wholly focused on the love story itself. She went on to tell Ligons that the best stories are those in which “the characters are driving toward something for themselves, and striving for something themselves.” 

Which is where the basketball comes into play – as both a narrative and literal device. Q and Monica are both wildly talented ballplayers who met on a basketball court when they were 11. It was then that Monica told Q that she would be the first girl in the NBA (at this time in the story, the WNBA didn’t exist. By the end of the film, Monica is a star in it). “No, I’m gonna be in the NBA. You’re gonna be my cheerleader,” Quincy replies. In short order, Monica burns him for a layup. They later discover that they’re neighbors in the same affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Monica’s family has just moved next door to Q’s. She’s a fan of the Lakers; his father plays for the Clippers.

Nevertheless, a connection blossoms, fostering over time as the two change schools, don new jerseys, and improve their jumpers. As per Prince-Bythewood’s promise, they remain connected not principally by proximity, but by ball. Q routinely, if reluctantly, gives Monica rides home from games and practices. Their bedroom windows sit across the side yard from one another; those who believe that Taylor Swift invented the window-to-window romantic tension need a proper education in both love and basketball, naturally. 

But it’s through their proximity that Prince-Bythewood introduces and nurtures this tale’s empathetic omnipresence. While he and Monica have a naturally competitive relationship, whenever Q’s parents fight, there’s an unspoken understanding that he can hop through his window, knock on Monica’s, and crash on her floor. No questions asked, she’ll let him in: she knows he’d do the same. 

If there’s one thing to note about Love & Basketball, if not all of Prince-Bythewood’s films, it’s her eternal compassion for her characters, many of them Black. Unlike the system into which Q and Monica inevitably enter – that of collegiate and professional athletics – she’s never exploitative. If a mite cliched, the bulk of the film leans into its genuineness not like a crutch, but like a firm embrace. It’s almost as if Lathan and Epps were told to go with what felt right in the moment. At the time that the movie was filmed, the two stars were dating, which likely made those performative decisions come off a bit more instinctual. Or perhaps it was a lethal combination of the two: brilliant actors utilizing just the right amount of real-life chemistry to their benefit.

Or perhaps the lethal combination isn’t so much these actor’s cooperative ability to fuse together a veritable connection between characters born on a page, but in their director’s raw gift and desire to blend together a love story that could tell of two kinds of love. “What’s revolutionary is that this amazing Black woman can love both [basketball and her partner] equally and still be a woman,” Lena Waithe told ESPN in April. Even more than telling the story of two kinds of love, it’s a story of a particular kind of love that was begging to be seen in 2000 and should be ubiquitous on screens today: Black love. 

“My intention was to make a Black love story that gives an opportunity to see ourselves up onscreen,” Prince-Bythewood told ESPN. With Love & Basketball, she not only did that, but she – as cliché as it is to say – opened doors that previously been closed. Without Monica and Q, we don’t see Barry Jenkins adapt the stories of Chiron or Fonny and Tish for the screen; we don’t see Waithe and Melina MatsoukasQueen & Slim; we don’t see Just Wright or Think Like a Man or Prince-Bythewood’s own Beyond the Lights

Before Monica and Q, the lane for these love stories to drive was a bit clogged. Too often today, the defense remains. But layups are certainly easier to come by.

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