LOVE & BASKETBALL (Prince-Bythewood, 2000)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 21, 2021
Review by Christopher S. Long
Battle-tested by the age of 11, Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) already understands that she's going to have to prove herself over and over again. After her family moves into an affluent black neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1981, she must earn her right to play on the basketball court with the boys. One cocky youngster barely has time to scoff that “Girls can't play no ball” before she's driving to the hoop. Her game impresses young Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman), no mean feat since Quincy has high standards: his dad Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) plays in the NBA. For the Clippers, mind you, but that still technically counts as the NBA.
Quincy decides Monica should be his girl, an “honor” she grudgingly accepts with a kiss, then promptly rejects once she realizes Quincy now expects to be the boss of her. Monica has no intention of taking orders, or guff, or crap of any kind from anyone, something Quincy discovers once she jumps him and wrestles him on the lawn. It's tough to like Quincy's chances in this match.
This childhood interlude is the muddy, grass-stained launching pad for a lifelong romance, one told with conviction and panache by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood in “Love & Basketball” (2000). The film, divided by title cards into four quarters, leaps ahead to the second quarter, circa 1988, when both Monica (now played by Sanaa Latham) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are high-school basketball stars. Quincy is the golden child, a pedigreed star guaranteed his choice of any college program. Monica, as always, has to fight much harder for everything she wants, playing her heart out for the tenuous hope of being recruited.
Dating is a nuisance she hardly has time for- gotta work on her outside game - but the spring dance is coming up, and she feels pressured to go, partly by her devoted mother (Alfre Woodard), who wants to see her tomboy daughter dressed to the nines, and partly because Quincy will be there. They're just friends who happen to live next door and share a love of basketball – honestly, they're just friends, but still, she wants to check in with him on the school's big night.
“Love & Basketball” has become a fan favorite since its release just over 20 years ago, and I suspect admirers fall in love with it at the same point Monica and Quincy officially declare their love. Prince-Bythewood's script deftly balances authenticity with the occasional fairy tale flourish that puts the romance over the top. Perhaps her savviest decision is to have Monica's and Quincy's bedrooms facing each other. Any time Quincy needs to escape from hearing his parents argue, he can just climb out onto the thin hill of grass that separates their rooms, knock on Monica's window, and have a safe refuge for the night. After they've both returned home on the night of the dance, their respective dates long since dispatched, they meet on the lawn and fall into each other's arms, a lifetime of yearning finally boiling over.
It's a beautiful moment, but college, with its whole new set of challenges, awaits in the third quarter. They both play at UCLA where they are now officially girlfriend and boyfriend. Repeating a pattern, the much-ballyhooed Quincy weighs leaving school early for the promise of being a lottery pick, while Monica scraps just for a chance to get on the court and showcase her mad skills. On first consideration, I felt the film took a wrong turn here, as the sweet, loving Quincy abruptly turns mean and selfish, but now I think Prince-Bythewood, herself a gifted high-school basketball player, understands well the difference in entitlement between male and female college athletes. Praised his whole life, Quincy expects the support of everyone on his predetermined path to fame and fortune. So when Monica makes even one modest decision to pursue her career (observing team curfew) instead of consoling Quincy when he feels down, he turns on her, placing their entire future in jeopardy. He's not accustomed to adversity and responds petulantly to even the slightest setback.
Monica truly loves Quincy, but she won't abandon her career plans for him, the way she feels her mother did to support her father, a successful banker. “Love & Basketball” would be a far lesser film if Monica ever lost focus on her own goals, and her commitment only makes their relationship, as well as Monica's ultimate on-court fate, feel all the more fully-earned.
“All's fair in love and basketball,” says Quincy. And all feels true in Prince-Bythewood's “Love & Basketball”, even its happily-ever-after ending.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer, supervised by director Gina Prince-Bythewood, was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative...” This 1080p transfer is pristine, another top notch Criterion release.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio track is sharp and robust with strong depth throughout. The score by Terence Blanchard as well as the film's pop songs also sound great with this mix. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied by two older commentary tracks. The two options are a track by Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan, recorded in 2000, and another track by Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, and composer Terence Blanchard, also recorded in 2000.
The “Making Of...” feature (2021, 38 min.) involves several cast and crew members, including Prince-Bythewood, Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, and Alfre Woodard. Prince-Bythewood speaks about her own experience as a high-school basketball player as well as her early career as a writer on “A Different World” and other shows.
In another interview (2021, 16 min.), editor Terilyn A. Shropshire discusses her work on the film, and how she came to join the project via a recommendation from Spike Lee (who is also a co-producer on the film).
Criterion has also included a short feature (2021, 22 min.) which consists of a Zoom meeting between Prince-Bythewood, WNBA Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, and writer-actress-producer Lena Waithe. The three women discuss how they've pursued success in their various careers, as Monica does in “Love & Basketball.”
The disc also includes Deleted Scenes (8 min.) and Audition tapes (9 min.), of both the adult actors and child actors who portrayed Monica and Quincy.
Criterion continues to stack the disk with two of Prince-Bythewood's short films. “Stitches” (1991, 31 min.) was her thesis film at UCLA Film School and tells the story of a troubled female stand-up comedienne. “Progress” (1997, 3 min.) is a very short film that juxtaposes Klan violence in the 1960s with gang violence in the 1990s.
The final extra on the disc is a Trailer (2 min.)
Prince-Bythewood recently scored a Netflix hit with “The Old Guard” (2020), but her debut feature “Love & Basketball” has been winning hearts for over 20 years. Criterion has given the film a proper treatment with a great high-def transfer and a strong collection of extras.