"I'll play you."
"One game. One-on-one."
Those are the words spoken by lead characters Monica Wright and Quincy McCall in one of the most daring scenes in "Love & Basketball." Stakes are high for the potential romantic reunion between them and this one game will decide their fate. In another film, this set-up might not work, but writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood builds a world so rich with basketball, family and depth that when this scene comes, we exist in it with the characters. Emotions are synonymous with the basketball game the two main characters share in; a convergence of sport and meaning that makes the film memorable and worth repeat viewings.
There are many ways a film like this could've been directed. Stories involving sports and African American people flood the media every day. But this film does something different—it makes basketball intimate and extremely specific to the lives of the characters and their families. Therefore, it isn’t just a game they play in order to get a scholarship to college; it is a game that bonds them, while also pulling them apart.
One of the best illustrations of this is the relationship between Monica (played fiercely by Sanaa Lathan), and Quincy (played by Omar Epps), which rests on their collective love of the game as children and into adulthood. As they get older, basketball starts to take on more sobering meanings, such as Monica's introduction to the lingering sexism in intercollegiate athletics at a time when the WNBA didn't exist. She is chastised for her unapologetic demeanor on the court, while Quincy isn't. Later, Quincy's love of the game is tested when he's betrayed by his father, the sole reason he became a basketball player. Basketball is an ever-changing theme in the story, a device of both unification and division, especially with Monica and her homemaking mother, who views the sport as a boundary between them.
In this way, basketball becomes love, connection and even estrangement. In one sequence, Monica and Quincy slow dance at their prom with different dates, but share a deep, sensual glance across the dance floor. Later, Monica discovers she's been accepted to the same school as Quincy, where she'll play for the women's basketball team. This ignites passion between them in a love scene that is both tender and beautiful for its subtlety and respect of a first-time experience. Then, basketball becomes the catalyst for their breakup, highlighting Monica's undying commitment to it and Quincy's growing distrust of it.
When we reach the climax of their one-on-one game, we buy it precisely because basketball was never just a game in this film. It was always a specific association, a feeling, and an undying passion. Bythewood, who won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay in 2000, makes sure that the film lives up to its name. “Love & Basketball,” indeed.
Which other African American sports films successfully personify the game, making the sport a character in itself?
XFINITY On Demand™ is currently celebrating March Madness by featuring sports films such as "Love & Basketball" and “Undefeated.” Learn more, and join the celebration of Black entertainment at xfinity.com/celebrateblacktv.
Editor’s Note: Shadow and Act partnered with XFINITY to celebrate Black entertainment. Be sure to visit xfinity.com/celebrateblacktv, a unique digital community built around the love of Black TV, film, sports, music and more. Shadow and Act hopes to enrich this community and provide a launching pad for insightful discussion. Look to Shadow and Act for features and content examining and exploring key themes and topics that run throughout the history of Black entertainment.