Culture is the very thing that paints the fingerprints we leave upon all that we touch in the universe. As a person of African descent living in America and growing up in the ’80s, I can recall a time when films featuring predominantly black casts and helmed by black directors would bring out the community to support en masse. I can recall with pixel-perfect precision the day director Spike Lee urged people of African descent to treat the day his movie Malcolm X debuted as a black national holiday. He even went so far as to urge kids to play hooky from school to see Denzel Washington transform into the man himself on the silver screen.
By the year 2000, many potential audiences of African descent seemed to take for granted that increased quality would be an automatic by-product of the overall increase in the quantity of black cinematic offerings. However, prior to the release of Love & Basketball, there were few honest, well-written love stories featuring a black leading man and woman. Lots of ghetto remarks, lots of cooning, lots of stereotypes, but very little quality was to be found.
Over the span of my career as a working journalist, there have been an untold number of instances in which practitioners of negritude-inspired media have candidly mentioned the necessity of striking a delicate balance between popularity and artistic merit. It is never an easy task. Individuals wish to remain true to themselves and their vision but also want to make a profit. Oftentimes, pursuit of a better bottom line comes at the expense of artistic quality.
This dynamic seems especially true when applied to films that purposely project words, images and ideas that reflect the mindset of a supposed minority onto the mindscape of the greater majority. But sometimes we’re lucky enough to witness the perfect combination of words, ideas and culture on the big screen. This magnificent menagerie was realized in the 2000 cinematic offering Love & Basketball.
Starring Omar Epps as Quincy McCall and Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright, with direction from Gina Prince-Bythewood, Love & Basketball tells the story of two childhood friends who love the game of basketball and see it as a way of changing their particular realities. For Quincy (Epps), basketball is a birthright of sorts because his father, Zeke (played by Dennis Haysbert), was a star for the NBA’s then-San Diego Clippers. Monica (Lathan) is a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson who wears the No. 32 in emulation of the former NBA superstar.
Monica’s road to basketball stardom is more arduous than that of her male counterpart. Along the way the film, in comparing the careers of the two would-be professional athletes, juxtaposes the seemingly enchanted life of a blue-chip athlete with that of an aspiring star. While basketball plays a part in the story, however, it is the film’s ability to capture the ups and downs of the young couple’s relationship that really draws us in. They were the couple many aspired to be: stars on the court and two people destined for greatness.
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