Make you do right
If there is a more perfect expression of life’s pains and elations than Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” I don’t know it. Under Green’s seductive vocals, at the start of Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Love & Basketball, everything you see as the camera swings through L.A.‘s upper middle class burb, Baldwin Hills sun-dappled trees, houses with green lawns and long driveways, kids shooting hoops is suddenly vibrant and sensual.
The time is 1981, and the camera slows to focus on three pre-teen boys imagining themselves as future pro ballers (“Wait till I get big like Kareem!”). Between dribbling and messing with each other, they pause to greet a new neighbor who wants to play. Reluctantly, they agree, only to be horrified when the new kid takes off his cap to reveal long hair: “Awww, he’s a girl!” Monica (Kyla Pratt) persists, and soon impresses her neighbors with her fierce determination and skills. Even Quincy (Glenndon Chatman), whose father Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) is a former star player for the L.A. Clippers, admires her grit, though of course he won’t say so. Instead, he gets into a fight with her right off the bat, and shoves her to the ground, so that she scrapes her face. Shortly after, his mother Nona (Debbi Morgan) and hers, Camille (Alfre Woodard) are forcing the kids to make nice, while they (the mothers) are comparing outfits and furniture. It’s immediately clear that the basketball court isn’t the only competitive arena.
In this specific sense its attention to women’s experiences, in relation to and separate from those of the men in their lives the film again makes you see with new and appreciative eyes. Camille, Nona, and Monica have very different experiences, to be sure, but each is represented with a similar respect, and Monica’s is clearly shaped by her understanding of what was available to her mother’s generation. Where the girl faces hurdles based in discrimination against women as professionals and as athletes, her mother and Nona embody the longterm cultivation of a “woman’s place,” their simultaneous internalization and resentment of such limits. Where Nona waits for her husband at home, priding herself on raising a decent and sensitive son, Camille is caught between two hard places: she fears her daughter’s independence, but she also admires and encourages it. Woodard’s complex, subtle performance conveys this contradiction, as her eyes betray that she sees in her daughter the potential and resilience she has long ago learned to suppress in herself.
Monica fights her role as a “girl” from jump. During the film’s “First Quarter” (it’s organized to emulate a basketball game), her early relationship with Q is awkward and vaguely cute. When they aren’t scrabbling for the basketball in the driveway, they’re testing out social and interpersonal boundaries. “Wanna be my girlfriend?” asks Q, with not an idea in his head what that might mean. They agree to initial terms (a first, five-second long kiss), but in the next heartbeat are fighting again, as Monica refuses to give up her own bike in order to ride on Q’s with him. They remain buddies and mutual courtside boosters, until the film’s “Second Quarter,” when they’ve grown up into Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps and are playing high school ball. While Monica struggles with her game and her aspirations to be the first woman in the NBA (Camille is on her case about being too tomboyish), Q’s a natural talent, a star point guard already being wooed by his dad’s alma mater, USC. The film is hardly subtle concerning the first part of its title, and its strength is its emphasis on the second, especially as it follows Monica’s stop-and-start career. Still, in high school, love rules: she resents having to carry love notes to him from other girls and he’s jealous that her date for the Spring Dance is some college hunk lined up by her more traditionally feminine sister.
At this point, the film falls back on a conventional high school movie moment: Monica and Q spot each other at the dance, across the proverbial crowded room. Wearing a sheer white dress and her grandmother’s pearls, Monica piques Q’s interest, and he leaves his date on the floor to say so. And there are few surprises in the ensuing action: they dump their respective dates in order to hook up after the dance (Q crawls in through her window, as their ground floor bedrooms face each other, adorably). Both are admitted to USC, where they play basketball and revisit their competition in various forms (this during the “Third Quarter”). The sweetest of these is a sexy strip nerf-basketball game in Q’s dorm room. The most muddled is Q’s insistence that she break curfew to “be there” when he discovers that his father has been cheating on his mom for years. Monica refuses to lose her newly assigned starting position on the USC women’s team), and of course, Q can’t realize that he’s asking her to perform the same long-suffering, self-abnegating role he’s seen his mother play, because he’s a freshman facing his first real emotional crisis. To get back at her, he takes up with a pretty party girl (The Best Man‘s Monica Calhoun), then decides to give Monica a chance to apologize, showing up on the sidewalk outside her dorm. Monica won’t back down, and he stomps off down the street, needy and angry, as the camera pulls out and up. Sidewalks outside dorms always look so lonely at times like this.
All through the film, Monica is advised by Camille, Q, her no-nonsense coach (Colleen Matsuhara) to lose her “hot ass temper,” while Quincy is encouraged to reap extensive benefits from the NBA “lifestyle” (the very same that tempted Zeke). Rejecting his dad as a role model (and his advice that he get an education to “fall back on”), Q decides to enter the draft after his freshman year: the film suggests this is a self-destructive move, though, given the increasing pressure on high school stars to turn pro, the lesson is left hanging at a disappointingly perfunctory level. Instead, Love & Basketball focuses on Monica’s life decisions, on the court and in her own emotional life. After college, Monica spends a few years in Europe, playing for Parma’s championship women’s team, but even when they win, the women don’t get the adulation and perks that are common for the most lowly NBA teams.
When Monica comes home to work at her father’s (the wasted Harry J. Lennix) bank, she finds out that Q’s engaged to someone else, namely, Kyra (Tyra Banks), who is instantly pegged as too superficial and too tall for the ever serious Q (and besides, she wears a weave). Kyra’s a cheap shot of a character, set up to underline in case you haven’t noticed already that Monica is the ideal, sincerely strong black woman. Even Camille sees this, and she advises her to go after her man, but not until after mother and daughter have it out in the kitchen (and yes, Camille’s cooking when the altercation begins). Still, the scene doesn’t cop out by giving either Monica or Camille a cheap high ground, and instead respects their different logics and heartaches.
While the protagonists are clearly shaped by their home lives, the film spends relatively little time in their homes. Instead, it shows them on the court and in relation to each other, as rivals, friends, U.S.C. teammates, and lovers, quarreling and not. Most often taking Monica’s point of view (strikingly during a couple of game scenes, the camera takes her on-court perspective while you hear her voice-over, breathing heavily and telling herself, “Watch the ball” and “Play smart”), the film is also fair to Q. In granting both characters fully developed personal and professional storylines, the film adroitly spreads out the generic demands of melodrama, sports action, and romance, while making the case that Monica’s (non)options as a female athlete are functions of backwards social, political, and financial thinking. By film’s end, the WBNA comes to the rescue, meaning that at last, the rest of the planet has caught up with the progressive thinking that Love & Basketball has presumed throughout.
But of this resolution might be forgiven for being too tidy, the finale for the romance is just silly (not to mention reminiscent of the father-son play-off at the end of L&B executive producer Spike Lee’s He Got Game). During a one-on-one late at night, the estranged couple competes for Q’s “heart.” (What?!) Still, if you can see past this unnecessary contrivance (which is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that it plays out under Me’Shell NdegeOcello’s superb “Fool of Me”), the rest of Love and Basketball does well in conveying complex relationships, at least one of which is left admirably unresolved. For all its clever basketball metaphoring, the movie does best when portraying the hard work that goes into love and happiness.