Black people are no monolith, but when it comes to films, there are just some projects that we all enjoy. Love & Basketball is one of them.
The 2000 film, the glorious silver screen debut of writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, tells the love story of two childhood friends whose romance was practically written in the stars. Love & Basketball stars Omar Epps and then-newbie actress Sanaa Lathan as its Romeo and Juliet — with a happier ending. Quincy McCall and Monica Wright are two friends whose deep feelings for each other are only rivaled by their passion for their favourite sport. Years pass, and their relationship ebbs and flows, but the lovers are endgame.
This year, Love & Basketball celebrates its 20th anniversary, and each viewing still hits like the very first time. My introduction to the film took place during my freshman year of college in a friend's dorm room. Dealing with my own relationship woes at the tender age of 18, I related deeply to Monica's struggle — except my Quincy wasn't as fine as early 2000s Omar Epps, and I know now that we were most certainly not meant to be. Nonetheless, eyes glued to the TV screen, I hugged a pillow tightly to my chest and wished for a love story that could withstand the test of time.
"I don't ever get tired of hearing that," Prince-Bythewood laughed as I recalled my dreamy first encounter with the film to her in a phone conversation. "It never gets old. It's everything to me."
Truly, she doesn't ever get enough of hearing people swoon over Quincy and Monica because she feels the same way. For the California-native, the romantic drama itself is personal. Fresh out of film school at the University of California, Los Angeles, Prince-Bythewood knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get a gig directing a big budget film. So, like so many of the Black creatives before her, she created her own opportunity by beginning her own project, setting aside a year and half of her life to develop the screenplay.
"I knew that I wanted to make a Black When Harry Met Sally, my favourite love story at the time."
Tackling the white-dominated romance genre was no easy task, and Prince-Bythewood initially struggled to lay the ground work for a film that would make sense with the others that exist in the romance zeitgeist. She scrapped her first few drafts and tried her hand at writing something that she thought might sell, but it didn't take long for her to realize that the key was looking inward.
"I knew that I wanted make a love story that was close to home," the director explained. "I knew that I wanted to make a Black When Harry Met Sally, my favourite love story at the time."
"I was acutely aware that we weren't getting those stories, but I really wanted to put this girl Monica, who was me, up on screen," she continued. "Even when I tried, I couldn't write those other generic stories because Monica was stuck in my head."
Fortunately for us, she stayed the course, and the screenplay for Love & Basketball was born. The film was picked up for production by powerhouse Spike Lee, and Prince-Bythewood meticulously began the casting process. Years later, even she can admit that she was very particular about the casting process, but it was her first film after all. From the start, the director had her eyes set on Epps following his roles in Juice and The Program, but she wanted an unknown to play his love interest him. Lathan was a strong candidate, but she was no good on the court. A hooper herself, Prince-Bythewood wasn't having it, so she brought in a professional to help sharpen the actress's game.
"No one who works with me will ever look wack in my movies," she declared.
The rest was history. Love & Basketball was released on April 21, 2000, and it immediately became a fan favourite. In the years that followed its premiere, the title found itself at the top of every "best romantic movies" and "best Black movies" roundup, only sharing the spotlight with Theodore Witcher's Love Jones (1997).
As the years passed, however, people began to look back at the classic with new eyes, seeing things in their favourite film that they hadn't picked up on in the past. Its leading man Quincy quickly came under fire because we realized that he's kind of toxic. While Monica supports him wholeheartedly, he isn't able to return the favour, choosing time and time again to prioritize his needs over her own. As an 18-year-old, I may have fancied the athlete — "double or nothing" admittedly still makes my heart squeeze — but at 27, you couldn't pay me to date a man like that.
Prince-Bythewood has seen the hot takes, and she firmly (but respectfully) disagrees. Yes, he makes mistakes. Yes, he lashes out. But Quincy isn't toxic, she says. He's just human.
"I'm not going to lie, it bugs me," she shared. "He's a flawed character, and he has issues, and it all goes back to his childhood. One of the hardest things for adults to to shed the negative things that you may have faced as a child, and I really wanted to explore that with both characters, especially with Quincy. He got damaged by his father and by his parents' toxic relationship, but that didn't stop him from loving Monica."
"This is a guy who, at the end of the day, believed in Monica's dream," Prince-Bythewood continued with conviction. "In all the important moments of her life and in their relationship, Quincy was different from the others. And I'm very proud of that — I wouldn't change a thing about him."
The complexity of Quincy's character and the turmoil that follows his journey are part of the the director's belief that the best love stories are the ones that have more weight to them. Nothing against rom-coms, but she would much rather be brought to tears than watch situational hijinks ensue. If you ask Prince-Bythewood, "falling in love, being wrecked, and then built back up" is part of the magic, especially in Black cinema.
"The fact that we've had these pure love stories come out really means a lot to me because it felt like for a long time, Black people were only allowed to fall in love in comedies," she explained. "We didn't get the opportunity to have these great, sweeping love stories."
It wouldn't be a stretch by any means to say that Love & Basketball helped usher in a new age of Black cinema, no doubt inspiring filmmakers like Ricky Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim), and Stella Meghie (The Photograph) to spin their own tales of romance.
Love & Basketball also opened the door for Prince-Bythewood to explore a number of different genres throughout her 20-year career, including sitcoms (Girlfriends, The Bernie Mac Show) and weepy dramas (Before I Fall). Next up, she's stepping back into the portal to the world of superheroes with an incredible gig directing the upcoming action film The Old Guard, which stars Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne.
Still, nothing compares to your first love. And for Prince-Bythewood, the joy she gets from seeing viewers engage with Love & Basketball after all this time means everything as an artist. She likens her film career to a game of basketball. Just like any athlete on the court, her motivation is both internal and external; the director still has so much more to say, and she wants to keep creating them because she knows just how important these stories are to people.
"I'm in this fight because I have so many stories to tell," Prince-Bythewood said. "And knowing that my work inspires people is like a jolt of adrenaline that keeps me in the game. I'm so grateful to all the people watching my movies and shows because I'm out here fighting for us, writing what I want to see and putting Black women up on screen."