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Before Tyler Perry Ruined Everything, There Was ...

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 4, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 4, 2010 |

There are plenty of so-called “urban” films (a studio marketing term if there ever was one) that, to varying degrees, successfully cover one aspect of the black experience. Films like Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jack City delve into the inner city, drugs, hustling, and what it means to live that that life. But there are very few “urban” romances, and even fewer that work. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball is that rare exception: A casual, almost effortless, relationship film that succeeds on the strength of the chemistry between its two leads, Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan.

Love & Basetball follows the course of Monica (Lathan) and Quincy’s (Epps) relationship from 1981, when they meet as young teenagers on a basketball court, until the then present day (2000). The movie uses a basketball game analogy as a framing device, dividing the movie into four quarters: The first, where Monica and Quincy develop a rivalry and friendship on the basketball court, the second in high school, where that friendship blossoms into romance, and the third, where college threatens to derail that relationship. (The fourth quarter picks up five years after college, but I won’t spoiler it).

In each quarter, Monica and Q have to deal with problems that arise outside of their relationship: Monica’s obsession with basketball colors the rest of her life around her. She has to balance her love of the game and her basketball career with her love life. Meanwhile, Q — a natural talent destined for the NBA, just like his father (Dennis Haysbert) — has to deal with some hard truths about the nature of his parent’s relationship, truths that create within Quincy a lot of trust issues and reveal his own problems with self-esteem. He also has to contend with playing third-man to Monica’s relationship with basketball, a commonality that brought them together, but often threatens to push them apart.

The film is largely told from Monica’s point of view, and Prince-Bythewood — directing from her own script — manages to successfully mine the real conflict between romance and career. Lathan is perfectly cast, too. She’s skinned-knee tough, temperamental as hell, and absolutely radiant, on the court and off. Epps — with those soulful eyes and tenderhearted toughness — offers a compelling and believable balance (although, his short stature often calls into question his ability as an NBA player).

Love & Basketball is a comfortable romance, winsome at times, and leavened with enough humor to negate some of the occasional heavy-handedness. Spike Lee produced, and his assuredness seeps into the efforts of then first-time filmmaker Prince-Bythewood (she has since also directed The Secret Life of Bees), who shows considerable grace for a debut film. Moreover, while there is plenty of romance — and an occasional passionate sex scene — there’s only one big romantic gesture, which comes at the end. But the mawkishness of that moment feels earned, and the payoff is ultimately satisfying.