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The eyes never lie


Omar Epps has his hotel bed pillows on the sofa, so he can lean into them while he talks to you. But two minutes into the interview, he’s sitting up and facing you, enthusiastically punctuating his points with his hands. At 26, the graduate of New York’s High School of Performing Arts already has an impressive 10-year career, including his debut in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice to John Singleton’s Higher Learning, Charles S. Dutton’s HBO film, First Time Felon, and The Wood (not to mention his memorable turns in ER and Scream 2). Today he’s talking about Love & Basketball, writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood’s first feature, produced by Spike Lee and Sam Kitt. The film follows the intersecting romance and careers of two young Los Angeles-based basketball players, Q, played by Epps, and Monica, played by his offscreen girlfriend, Sanaa Lathan (Blade, The Best Man).



Cynthia Fuchs:

How do you think Love & Basketball is different from what its viewers might have seen before?



Omar Epps:

It’s a new slice of African American life, with basketball as a backdrop. It’s refreshing in that it’s part of that new movement in black films, looking at the middle class, both the kids come from two-parent household, so it’s not against all odds, or basketball or die. And for me, the major draw was that the girl got to have her cake and eat it too.



CF:

It’s also unusual in that it splits audience identification pretty evenly between two protagonists.



OE:

Well, it really is about the girl, about Sanaa’s character Monica. I think that Gina did a good job of not making it only a statement for women’s sports, outright. She let the situation speak for itself. I think it’s a date movie and a family film. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to see it. With a lot of films, I can see why someone from a certain area might not want to check it out, but this one, with the love dynamic and the relationships among the family members, has a lot to offer.



CF:

Can you describe how you see the intergenerational relations?



OE:

I think it’s important, especially for black cinema, because we don’t get to see too often the father and son bonded beyond biological circumstances: this father raised his kid, living in the house with the mother. The last scene between my character and his father leaves you with an optimistic feeling, because they’ve both become men. I was so taken by the all parents’ stories, they’re so solid and present throughout the film.



CF:

How do you think it presents the tensions between career and relationships?



OE:

It’s the real deal. You could use an older couple, who might not be in the sports atmosphere, or who are in a corporate atmosphere. Here, basketball is a metaphor for that tension. I know independent women in their thirties, who have trouble finding a guy who may not be where he wants to be, and vice versa with men. It’s more prevalent now in the 2000s, because there are more women getting into positions of power, and not just because it’s a movement, but because they’re the better person for the job. So this movie comes right around that time, when that’s a discussion that people are having. And how do you work it out? I don’t know. I guess in our film, love triumphs over all. But with compromises.



CF:

Given that you’ve been working for so much of your life, what kind of changes have you seen in the industry?



OE:

I see more chances being taken. To me it’s not a surprise, it’s just a process of events. In ten years, I’ve seen two waves of actors come already. And I’ve seen technology definitely do its thing. I remember when Jurassic Park came out, that was like, “Oh my god!”, but then when The Matrix came out, it was on a completely different level. And I’ve seen people become more accepting of art, coming back to that auteur mindframe. Hollywood is based on money, so whatever makes dough, that’s what they’re going to duplicate, whatever doesn’t, they’ll shelf. But I’ve seen studios take chances, make the Good Will Huntings once in a while. And the independent rush, that’s the biggest thing that everyone’s seen. You can get a High 8 or Handicam, go out and make Blair Witch, and it might make $144 million. That’s all about chance, which is exciting.



CF:

And Spike Lee, one of the producers for your film, has important for that increasing interest in independent films.



OE:

Definitely, I think he helped push the independent mindframe, as a writer, director, performer, and producer. Spike is like the magician who gives away his tricks. Magicians don’t usually give away their secrets, but Spike encourages you and gives tricks away, as if to say, “You can do this if you want to do it.” Cats like Spike, who inspire and show and prove by his work, it’s only good. And he has a huge responsibility. I remember at the inception of the new black film renaissance, mid-eighties, there was Spike, and because he was a young black writer-director, he had the whole plight of our people on his shoulders. He basically had to rewrite our cinematic history. The “great” films before that were Superfly and The Mack, which were shitty films but for the time, they served purpose. So Spike had to show that we were artistic, and we were clever, and witty and smart, and that we had the ability to make a credible film that was colorless. If you take Spike Lee’s name off of Malcolm X or Mo’ Better Blues, they’re still great fucking movies. He’s definitely one of our warriors.



CF:

As your previous films have been “mainstream,” what’s it like having a film in festivals [Love & Basketball is screening at numerous film festivals before opening commercially]?



OE:

I dig it. Sometimes I get a chance to see some other films, which I might not see otherwise. And everyone is here to see films, that’s cool. Love & Basketball isn’t really a festival type of film, but I guess the vibe has people interested in it. It’s a feel-good movie and inspirational, which is the kind of film they use to open or close a festival.



CF:

I suppose, to the powers that be, a film written and directed by a black woman may be unusual, i.e., “festival” material.



OE:

You know, someone asked me the other day, what was it like to work with a woman director. I was like, what? I don’t want to sound like Mr. Philosopher, but art doesn’t have a gender. What I wanna say is, she has the ability, she’s an artist. But it’s the society we live in, that’s still a battle.



CF:

How do you see your career taking shape?



OE:

I’m glad that now I’ve done a real date movie, I hadn’t done a love story before, and next I want to do a romantic comedy, show a lighter side. I want to be respected. I think I people know of my dramatic ability. I would live to be heralded like Denzel, but at the same time, you would never believe him in a light comedy.



CF:

Heart Condition, no. But Preacher’s Wife, a little closer.



OE:

A little bit, maybe. But I want to be able to flip like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks: these guys are brilliant comedians but when they do the dramatic stuff, you’re there with them. Or Jim Carrey, I thought he was amazing in Man on the Moon. This [generically limited] system is set up because, people individually, we don’t control anything. But as a mass, we control. It’s hard to break the mold because the mold is a dollar, it’s all about money. It’s hard to take a risk or gamble, because who knows what’s going to miss. They’re going to make Waterworld for $100 million and it flops, but they’ll do another one because one of those is going to hit.



CF:

What do you make of the emerging viewership, say, for The Best Man, people who know how the business works and who network by email and make the effort to see the film the first weekend to secure for it a huge opening office?



OE:

There’s so much that’s out of our control, as actors. But for viewers, what used to be word of mouth is now word of keypad. The internet is another platform for independent films: you can set up a website, get a following, who knows what could happen. But word of mouth is big now because you might have that friend in London, and type to her, “Hey, this was a good movie, go check it out,” and then she spreads the word, like disease. There are more platforms for people to go against the grain. But it’s hard when you try to make a statement with a film. You automatically pigeonhole yourself, because only a certain amount of people are going to come out and see it. And you can’t be mad at the masses who don’t come out, because maybe they just don’t want to deal with that. So if it’s X or a Schindler’s List, well, that did well, but it was harrowing.



CF:

But you feel like Love & Basketball does both.



OE:

Sure, and that’s a testament to Gina. There’s not any scene in the film that’s a statement, like: here’s the monologue. That’s how you do it: you place life in front of people, but you don’t point the finger and say, you are here, let me guide you through. That’s what’s exciting about the discussion of this film: everybody’s getting a different thing from it. Some people are more into the relationship between the father and son, other people are into the relationship between Sanaa and I, others are into the sports. There are many discussions to be had. And that’s the best thing. You want people to be entertained but to think, to have something to talk about.



CF:

Was there a part of the film that was difficult for you?



OE:

The biggest challenge was to go back to the seventeen- or eighteen-year-old mindset. Not to act it, I wanted to live it, because the eyes never lie. It was hard to be consistent, and not think, because at that age, you’re just full of passion and you think you know but you don’t know, and you do know, and all those things at once. It was so uncomfortable.



CF:

And the basketball — as business as well as sport — complicates that young life.



OE:

Definitely, especially for Sanaa’s character. She’s going against the odds, being a woman player generally, but also for her individually. Monica wasn’t born with the talent, she had to learn it and work on it and deal with her mother, who wanted her to be more an effeminate woman versus just realizing her own potential. Whereas my character has the talent and has the backing of his father, has it laid out for him, and is surpassing all the things his father had done at his age. But my character’s question is, is basketball everything? And if not, then what else is there? And he ends up with love, which is the wealthiest thing of all. Which is important for kids now, because the mindset you have now is, either you have a wicked jump shot or you sling crack rock. So this film conveys that without preaching, without having that scene where someone says, “You ain’t got no back up!” For all these young kids coming into the NBA, getting shitloads of money and endorsements, it’s not so much can they play the game, it’s the lifestyle. It’s hard to tell them anything, because they’re paying the bills, providing for their families. And it’s harder for them to teach themselves to learn. It’s a whirlwind. I can only imagine; it’s been a whirlwind for me, but sports is completely different, you’re traveling everywhere all year round, and your face is on tv constantly, and you’re in video games and on jerseys, and how do you deal with that? All you’re doing is dribbling a basketball, and that can’t be life. But it’s happening for a reason.



CF:

And the reason is?



OE:

In my mind I can narrow it down. For the money thing, it’s only fair. If a team has $120 million to pay Kevin Garnett or Shaquille O’Neal, how much are they making off of the guy? It’s not like they’re making 300 and want to give him half. No. They’re making billions. But the money thing aside, it’s important that these guys realize their responsibility and that basketball is not just a means to an end, it’s the first phase of whatever their greater destiny is. Once I really got into the business, on the audition circuit, I dreamed of being on the set and doing interviews. When I did get on the set, I was young, and I know where I was mentally as a young man, and I know where I am now. And it’s so easy to stay in that young man’s mentality, because it’s all so surreal. You’re living out your dreams. But when you let your feet touch the ground, and you see the responsibility and the opportunity spread out before you.



CF:

Do you feel a responsibility to represent?



OE:

I feel it to a small degree. It’s not something I wear on my shoulder. It’s something that’s natural. I’m a black man and proud of it, I love my people. And I’m all for the “one world, one culture,” but in order for us to have one culture, each culture must be its own and understand its own. And as an African American man, we are the number one displaced people in the world, because you can come to America and you can go to the Greek or Chinese part of town, and people still have their own native tongue. We’re the only people — us and white people, actually — who don’t have a native anything. We’re just trying to find our way, in the midst of everybody reaping the benefits of our ancestors’ work.


But the primary responsibility I feel is just to kids in general, no matter what color. I’m inspired by kids, so I would like to return the favor. I want to push it so that my daughter, godsons, and goddaughter won’t have to go through and see the same things that we saw. That’s what it’s all about: recycling and sacrifice. I want to make the best of my time on earth, so the ones that come after us can be smarter, wiser, stronger, more talented. The responsibility that I feel comes naturally, it’s the nature of my person. I don’t have to go to the school in the slums and put on my face. I live that every day, with every person I come in contact with. And that’s the easiest thing to do is, be me.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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