Criterion Review: LOVE & BASKETBALL

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2001 sports romance is a modern classic; the new Criterion Blu-ray is packed with goodies.

Love & Basketball is 21 years old, and yet remains something of a novelty in its nonjudgmental depiction of a woman who wants to succeed in her sports career and in love. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) spends her teen years living next door to Quincy (Omar Epps) in a semi-combative friendship, due to their competitive natures on and off the basketball court. This eventually grows into something deeper before they enter university on their athletic scholarships.

A former teen athlete herself, director Gina Prince-Bythewood pointedly contrasts the differing experience Monica has in her sports programs from Quincy, from the small crowds at her high school basketball games to the smaller gym her college games are played in. Regardless of her obvious talent, a professional career in basketball isn’t as much of a certainty for her. In one of the extras on the new Criterion release, the filmmaker comments that the WNBA wasn’t yet in existence when she first wrote Love & Basketball and those first years as she tried to find a studio to back her.

While Lathan is admittedly not a natural on the court, she underwent weeks of training pre-production with consultant and coach Colleen Matsuhara. That and the tight editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire help Monica appear a skilled player. Lathan delivers a breakthrough performance here; her Monica is cocky about her sports prowess, but less assured in her personal relationships. The kitchen argument between Monica and her mom (Alfre Woodard, Passion Fish) is as memorable as the after-dance love scene between Quincy and Monica. The tenderness and pain of the game Monica and Quincy play against each other near the film’s ending is almost palpable.

Lathan and Epps depict Monica and Quincy with all their quirks and foibles and make the audience fall in love with the couple and hope for their future together. Their happy ending isn’t assured, but it is utterly well deserved. As filmgoers, we also deserve to see women not punished for their determination and drive. It shouldn’t be so rare to see a woman in a romantic film satisfied in her love life and her career, and not torn between the two.

This is why Love & Basketball has earned a place in my mind and heart. As Omar Epps notes in a short feature for the Criterion Blu-ray, the work is an exploration of Black joy. With such a heavy-hitting cast of Black talent (I haven’t mentioned Regina Hall! or Gabrielle Union! or Dennis Haysbert!), with its sincere script and sweet love story, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film remains a classic.

The Criterion Blu-ray for Love and Basketball includes special features such as:

  • Playing for Your Heart, a 2021 making-of special which encompasses Prince-Bythewood’s conception of the story, Sanaa Lathan’s first reading at Sundance, Lathan’s basketball training and other moments on the way to filming. Reggie Rock Bythewood, the director’s partner in life and film production, speaks to Gina’s talent for combining “the intimate and the epic.”
  • Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire speaks about her involvement in Editing “Love & Basketball.” After the job she did on Eve’s Bayou, producer Spike Lee recommended her to Prince-Bythewood for this film. Shropshire talks about balancing the love story and the games, her editing as a negotiation “between performance…and technique.” She also mentions the sexist nature of the edits required by the MPAA because it appeared Monica was “enjoying it too much” in the sex scene.
  • a conversation between Prince-Bythewood, Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) and basketball hall-of-famer Sheryl Swoopes.
  • audition footage of chemistry readings between Lathan and Omar Epps. The audio was hard for me to make out, but it’s still easy to see the quick rapport between the two actors.
  • two of Prince-Bythewood’s early shorts, introduced by the filmmaker: her UCLA thesis film Stitches (1991) about a stand-up comic, and Progress (1997). In her intro, the director shares, “I want my films to end with hope.”
  • an ode to Love & Basketball written by author/essayist Roxane Gay

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