In Love & Basketball, appetites and fears are told through wandering eyes when Monica and Quincy first have sex. With a lived-in sexuality, the movie doesn’t need explicit nudity to sell its point: the intimacy feels real. As an audience, we follow the action by where Monica’s gaze falls, and then again with Quincy’s. Words are used sparingly to emphasize consent and longing. How often do we watch a character put on a condom before having sex, especially without fanfare or jokes? The casualness of the moment becomes radical due to its normalcy. Without making a big deal about safe sex or even virginity, Gina Prince-Bythewood crafts a love story that resonates with unusual sincerity in the Age of Irony.
Sports and love have a storied precedent in cinema. Nearly every movie about sports features a b-story with a romantic interest. The athlete, nearly always a man, finds solace and grounding in his relationship with women or sees his life torn apart by unchecked desire. Love & Basketball is different. The story of parallel athletic careers, it showcases the gendered expectations that come with a career in sports. As much as Monica wants to be the first woman to play in the NBA, her career and desires are expected to take a back seat to Quincy’s. She doesn’t stand for that and ends up losing far more than she bargained for. Continually, Monica is chastised for not being womanly enough, for not supporting her man, but why does it have to be that way?
I’m not used to seeing bodies like Sanaa Lathan’s onscreen. First, there is still a drought for films about the lives of black women, and second, seeing a woman with an athletic build remains an unfamiliar image of strength and femininity onscreen. The way Lathan plays the role emphasizes this discomfort, as the film — far removed from fantasy — embodies the anxieties of the real world, and watching her struggle with her dress or stumble in high heels rings true. In stark contrast to Monica’s confidence on the court, where she almost seems to fly, in love she worries that she will never be good enough. We follow as Monica watches other women who don’t play basketball or how she sizes up Quincy’s fiancee played by Tyra Banks: we can’t help but feel Monica’s fears of inadequacy roll over her like a fog. Am I not feminine enough? Pretty enough? Should I change who I am? These questions hit hard and remain uncomfortably on point. Let’s not forget the uncomfortable zeal which some commentators and audiences picked apart Serena Williams last year when she was chosen Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated. The struggles that female athletes (especially black women) have hardly edged forward in 16 years since the film’s release.
But, Love & Basketball transcends the simplicity of just alienation, as it reaches for romantic equality and miraculously achieves it. How rare in art for a love story to have two players on such an even playing field? Monica and Quincy are equals, through and through, yet their hardships and privileges remain different. Gina Prince-Bythewood pays attention to both their struggles, their faults and their dreams — hitting every beat with organic realism. We feel Quincy’s pains as he deals with his parent’s separation with the same attention as we deal with Monica’s growing pains. Even the treatment of their relationship, which suffers not because they are mismatched but rather due to circumstances, feels authentic. The dream of ideal love, just like the dream of a career in basketball, is not quite what you might expect, and that’s okay. The film showcases that you don’t have to revolutionize storytelling to make a great film; it proves that even the most simple stories are rarely told with delicacy or detail.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.