Thursday, July 5, 2007

Love Road Basketball Glory

I’ve always been more or less neutral towards basketball and futbol. Though both sports are momentum-driven and require their athletes to move with lightning speed pretty much all the time, I never took to either sport via telecasts.

March Madness comes and goes on TV without a glance from me; same thing with the NBA Finals. A friend of mine is a huge basketball fan and while I was working on my thesis, he would frankly insist that shooting hoops was superior to making touchdowns…conceptually and in actuality. Basketball, he argued, demands a lot more out of its players than football does its own. Excelling at the former sport utilizes a combination of intelligence, athletic ability, and talent that surpasses that of the latter.

I still love the gridiron game, but I have to admit that my appreciation for basketball has increased considerably after watching Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000) and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006).

I vaguely remember Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film being in the theatres. As it turns out, I was less familiar with its plot than I was with the film’s place in the year 2000. Prior to watching the film, I had not read up on what the film was about–I knew there was basketball and a romance subplot. I didn’t know that the lead female character would be playing ball too.

Written and directed by Prince-Bythewood, Love & Basketball follows Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) from childhood to early adulthood as they pursue their NBA dreams and grapple with the distractions and tensions commensurate with realizing their respective goals. The film is divided into four parts. It begins with Monica and Quincy as pre-teens (played by Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman respectively), establishing how they first meet. She’s the new next-door neighbor and can play ball just as hard as he can.

The second, third, and fourth sections of the film focus on a different period of their lives. “Second Quarter” covers the 1988 basketball season at Crenshaw High School where Monica plays on the girls team and Quincy the boys. “Third Quarter” spans the 1988-1989 schoolyear at USC where Monica and Quincy also play basketball as freshmen. The “Fourth Quarter” looks at both characters’ lives in 1993; Monica has been playing for Spain for seven months and Quincy is recovering from a torn ACL injury he sustained while playing for the Lakers. The love component to the story manifests itself through Monica and Quincy as they realize that they mean more to each other than default friend.

In addition to developing the mutual attraction and affection between the two main characters, Prince-Bythewood’s film also uses this relationship to raise questions about gender roles and equality. Monica isn’t simply characterized as a tomboy or even slightly more athletic than her mother would like. She is feisty, temperamental, and a fighter. Quincy’s “personality” is less complex and functions more as a counterpart to Monica. In fact, as sports movies go, Love & Basketball virtually reverses the gender dynamics of its two primary student-athletes–at the very least, it assigns certain qualities typically associated with the (male) athlete to Monica rather than to Quincy.

For instance, the object of most sports films is to present a coming-of-age or redemption narrative by forcing its protagonist (an individual or a team) to learn the hard way how to succeed. Whoever is a bit too cocky, a bit too introverted, or a bit too unruly are all made to recognize and then relinquish or re-appropriate those characteristics. Along this journey, the protagonist must overcome obstacles and conflicts such as his own pride or fear as well as others’ critcisms.

Love & Basketball re-works this narrative pattern by offering cockiness and stubborness to Monica. She exhibits the attitude of an athlete who prioritizes the game above all else. Quincy, on the other hand, provides a contrast to that mentality by assuming somewhat of feminized position within their relationship. She is “better” at the game than he is; and while he still participates in archetypically male behavior (with female characters), the film is more interested in defining him in terms of or against his father, a former Clippers player (Dennis Haysbert) who proves to be a less than ideal role model. When the like-father-like-son mentality that Quincy had been carrying all his life suddenly fails to suffice, his insecurities become too much for him.

I would argue that Prince-Bythewood’s film is more about Monica and Quincy as individual basketball players one a thematic level. Furthermore, it is the way in which their lives play out on and off the court that builds and fuels the viewer’s concern. I’m not one to pull out the “F” word lightly, but I think it’s relevant here. From a narrative and ideological perspective, Love & Basketball can be considered a feminist film. That the film features a real high school (Crenshaw) that is known for its great girls and boys basketball teams and real USC women’s basketball players or that the story depicts Monica as more of the athlete (including being shouted at repeatedly by her USC coach) is just part of it.

I think the film has feminist undertones because it allows basketball to serve metaphorical purposes for Monica instead of Quincy. I don’t want to give away the last important scene in the film (or the film’s ending for that matter) because I really enjoyed Love & Basketball and highly recommend it. I will, however, say that the game means to Monica something that is usually associated with young males.

This film conveys the basketball-is-not-just-a-game message but through the eyes of a female. I’m sure some feminists would find it problematic that the film can’t tell this story without making Monica adopt a few male-athlete personality traits but I have no complaints. I don’t even mind the love thread–in the end, it works out better than I could have imagined. So go Netflix it or Blockbuster it today!

Originally posted at Sitting Pugs. To read about Glory Road, click here.

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