Twenty years ago, Gina Prince-Bythewood released her directorial debut, “Love & Basketball,” which has become one of the most iconic romantic dramas of the 21st century.
It follows the love story of two childhood sweethearts, Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), with a passion for the game. Unfolding in four quarters, life throws challenges at the couple’s on-again, off-again relationship as they balance love with the pursuit of their hoop dreams.
Prince-Bythewood had been writing for TV for five years before quitting to write her first big feature. She thought it would take a year to finish writing with her husband, Reggie Rock-Bythewood, but the personal nature of the story combined with some perfectionism extended that process to a year and a half. Next came the process of selling the script.
“Every single studio turned it down,” she told HuffPost. Executives gave her notes saying that the story was “too soft,” suggesting that she add “a thing like in ‘Soul Food’ where the character’s chasing her husband with a knife.”
Despite the film being a classic today, the writer-director faced obstacles in getting studios to believe in her vision. The constant rejection devastated her.
“I believed in the story. I believed in the characters. I believed in what I was trying to say,” Prince-Bythewood said. “So a big part of it is, you’re rejecting me because I’ve written this personal story.”
Fortunately, in 1998 she was accepted into the Sundance Institute Lab Program, which turned the course for her film. Spike Lee came on as producer, and he suggested a meeting at New Line Cinema, which bought the script and gave Prince-Bythewood a $14 million budget. After months of a challenging casting process — with Lathan nearly being rejected for the lead role and Prince-Bythewood getting into her directing groove with a big budget on the line — everything aligned. “Love & Basketball” was released nationwide on April 21, 2000, and made more than $27 million at the box office during its run.
“Love & Basketball” helped change the game in cinema. It showed us the power of a multifaceted woman who goes after what she wants through Monica. It highlighted the inequality female athletes endure. It showed us the impact of unhealed generational wounds. And it helped open doors for several of the great Black actors we know today, including Regina Hall, Gabrielle Union and Lathan, for whom it was her debut starring role.
Prince-Bythewood spoke to HuffPost about the legacy of “Love & Basketball,” the imposter syndrome she endured making the film and the doors she wants to continue to open for the next generation of filmmakers.
How does it feel to know that your first film is considered a classic and has had this impact not only on Black film but on cinema, period?
Foremost, I sincerely appreciate that they’re going to be putting a spotlight on the film. I mean, to be talking about it 20 years later is so amazing and humbling to me as an artist. You just hope that your film has an impact on somebody. And given the fight and struggle and the blood, sweat and tears to get this film into the world, to be here today, getting to talk about it, it blows me away. I never ever get tired of hearing somebody say they love the film or that it meant something to them, or, as you just said, that you saw yourself. Because really why I made it initially was I was not seeing myself up on-screen and certainly not in a love story, and I wanted to put us up on-screen in a way that we could be inspired by and aspire to be. So the fact that it’s resonated, as you said, not just with Black audiences but with everybody, is also validation that our stories need to be in the world and everybody needs to see our stories. So, it’s amazing.
You got a lot of noes in the beginning and notes to change the integrity of this story, but you didn’t. What kept you standing firm in your convictions?
I think it’s two things. Growing up an athlete absolutely influenced who I am as a director and who I am and how I move through this industry. All the things you learn as an athlete, and especially for women, which were not taught outside of athletics and why I push so hard for girls to be in athletics, that thing of stamina, and always going after it; and being aggressive, and outwork everybody and leave it all out on the floor ― all those lessons and the competitiveness absolutely fueled the fight, because that’s what this industry is. Protecting your vision is an absolute fight, and you have to be up to the fight. And so in growing up and being in a sustained fight, when you’re on the court, when you’re on the track, that’s what it is. So that being ingrained was absolutely helpful.
And then, it was a story that I was so passionate about, that I so believed in. And that’s why I feel like it’s so important that the first thing that you come out with should be something very personal and passionate, because you are going to get a thousand noes. But what I learned with “Love & Basketball,” and what I’ve taken to the rest of my projects in this industry, is that you only need one yes. And, finally, that yes came.
I was watching a few of your previous interviews and I was kind of shocked about some of the stories that you were telling about how essentially that was one of the biggest budgets that you’d gotten for a film to date. You had a certain level of freedom and other things that aren’t common in Hollywood, especially for Black and female directors. Were there any challenges that you had to get over in order to really execute on your film?
That’s a great question. Definitely. I only had interests from two studios. I had met with Sony and it did not go well, so this was like the last shot. This is after Sundance, after the reading, after Spike Lee came aboard and said, “Hey, let’s take this to New Line.” So I’m sitting outside of Michael De Luca’s office ready to go in and pitch myself as the director of “Love & Basketball,” and I was scared to death. I was literally shaking. And I was saying to myself, “Oh, my God, you are going to choke. This is your biggest shot, and you’re going to choke.”
I was trying to calm myself, and I finally said to myself, “Where are you most comfortable?” And it was on the court. “Alright, walk into the room like you’re walking on the court. You know who you are on the court. You’ve got your swagger, you know that she’s the best.” So, that’s what I did. When that door opened, I literally had my basketball walk that I have on the court and walked in, sat down, and I had to put on that persona. The first thing Mike De Luca said was, “This is the best love story I’ve ever read,” and that blew me away. It wasn’t the best Black love story. It was: This is the best love story. And that just calmed me, because I knew I was in a friendly room at that point, and he had recognized what I’d been trying to put in the world and what had kept getting rejected.
It was just, again, a magical meeting, where he said, “How much money do you need?” and I said, $10 million, and he said, “No, you need more.” That will never ever happen again in my life. And also that I said I wanted to find somebody new for Monica. I wanted to discover somebody, and he said, “You can do that if you get Omar Epps.” And Omar Epps was my first choice for Quincy, so it was such a perfect situation.
I knew I was very fortunate because I knew the character of Monica so well; I knew that story so well, I knew that world so well, that actually gave me confidence and gave others confidence in me. But once I shot it and I watched that first cut, I was literally on the ground of the parking lot of the theater thinking I failed. I thought I messed up completely and messed up my first film. It was just a horrible feeling, but it was like building it and building it and cutting and cutting, and finally realizing that we might have something good.
Wow. What was it that made you feel like you had something good finally?
Well, there’s five moments. We were cutting a scene. It was when Quincy breaks up with Monica outside the dorm. I didn’t see how the performance was on that. I knew I’d got it, but I didn’t know how good it was. And sitting in the editing room, I was like, “Damn, Sanaa is really the one. She’s really killed this.” That was the first thing where I was starting to get a little confidence, but I still didn’t know. And we had a screening for our music people. That was the first time anybody outside had seen it, and they seemed like they were so bored watching it. That was another moment of, “Oh, man, this movie sucks.” I was curled up in bed, and my husband hadn’t seen it yet because I was waiting, I wanted him to see it when it was a little better. And he said, “Let me see it.” And I was like, at this point, “Whatever,” because again, I thought I’d messed it up.
And he came back after watching. He said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “This is so good.” And to hear that from him totally rejuvenated me. Went back in, kept working on it. And then our first preview screening was down in Crenshaw, at the theater there in Arlington [in Los Angeles]. We shot so much of the movie there, and at the high school. It was packed, and it was such a raucous screening. It was just an amazing night. And it was at that point I realized, “Damn, people are feeling this movie.” That’s when I felt like we really did have something.
“Love & Basketball” was recently on Netflix, I want to say in December, and a lot of conversations about Monica and Quincy’s relationship started to bubble up on Twitter. I don’t know if you’d seen them. I know you’re active on Twitter, but people are saying that Monica and Quincy’s relationship was toxic. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that.
Of course, I’ve seen that. It surprises me because I’ve never seen it as toxic. I see it as two damaged people, Quincy being more damaged than her, trying to find themselves. And once they can find themselves, they can come back to each other. They’ve loved each other ever since they were little, and that they were able to maintain a friendship and then a relationship, and then they split apart. But what they had at its core: a belief in each other’s talents. The fact that Quincy... Of course, the beginning of it, when he’s chastising her for being a girl trying to play ball, once he sees her skills, he sees it, he’s her cheerleader. He doesn’t suddenly care that she’s a girl. She’s just somebody who can ball. So he was always supportive of her dream. And that is, I think, at the core of any great relationship.
And I also go back to the first time... I mean, she loses her virginity to him and he’s so great in that moment. He truly loves her in that moment and he wants to make sure she’s OK. He does everything right in that moment. He is the perfect guy in that moment. Again, he is a damaged dude and was very hurt by his father and took out that anger on the people closest to him. That was Monica. But that was his character. That was his struggle. And Monica is a woman fighting for equality, fighting to be seen and to be heard, and to be loved for who she is and not who people think she should be. And the fact that he loved this woman who was an athlete shows so much about who he is. So again, I hate that people want to say that the relationship is toxic. I don’t see that at all. I see it as a great love.
Monica, I love her character so much. Not only because she is a fighter for the things that she believes, but it also feels as though she is this metaphor for the fight for, quite frankly, Black women’s equality, whether it be in sports, in love. How intentional was it for you to create Monica as this sort of hero, in a way, for women and girls, especially Black women and girls, to have someone on screen who advocates for themselves?
I felt like as a girl and a young woman, I was being taught — and not necessarily within my family but within society — that you really have to choose. You can have a career, but if you’re a career woman, then you can’t be married and you can’t have kids, but you have to have one or the other. And I wanted to show that you can have both, and we deserve both. And in addition to that, growing up, my self-esteem sucked unless I was on the court. That’s the only time I felt whole. Off the court, I was made fun of because I liked sports. I was made fun of and called a tomboy. You’re made to feel like something’s wrong with you. But I’m being made to feel like something’s wrong with me because I love something so much.
I loved being an athlete and loved everything that came with that. So to be constantly shown that something’s wrong with you, that does eff with you, eff with your head, eff with your heart. I wanted to normalize and celebrate a woman who could behave the way Monica does, because it all came at a passion. And I wanted girls to be able to look up on the screen and know that it’s OK to have a voice and have a passion and fight, because that’s who we should be. That’s what we should be taught as girls, and we’re not. So a big part of it was to try to normalize and reframe what it means to be a woman.
So many filmmakers and producers today, especially women filmmakers, like Stella Meghie, like Issa Rae, have cited “Love & Basketball” as a big influence and impact on why they tell the stories that they do now. When you hear things like that, what does that mean to you?
It’s absolutely amazing to me. That means more to me than anything. To inspire people as an artist, that’s what you want. And I just think about the way I felt when I saw “Eve’s Bayou” and knowing that a Black woman, Kasi Lemmons, made it. But that made it tangible to me that I could do it, too. My first job on “A Different World,” going to work every day and Susan Fales, a 28-year-old Black woman running the show, and Yvette Lee Bowser, a producer, a young Black woman, and Debbie Allen, running things. Every day I’m going to work and I’m surrounded by Black women in charge. That made it normal to me. They were all so beneficial for my career and helpful for my career, and pushed me and guided me. Those kinds of things mean something. I was inspired by seeing Kasi Lemmons’ film and believing I could do it. To know that I’ve done that for others, that means everything to me.
You’ve discussed how hard it is, especially in recent years, to make romantic dramas now. I know that that is your lane, your passion. Why is it much harder nowadays?
It was hard then, and it’s hard now. It’s easier to do a romantic comedy, but a great love story? Love stories are rarely made. And then love stories with us, I’d say you can count on one hand, that’s just how bad it is. I just think that’s a function of Hollywood. All the heads of studios are white, and so when the script comes in, they’re looking to see what appeals to them, what they can connect with.
And unfortunately, they’re not always open enough to see a film the way Mike De Luca did, who said, “This is a great love story,” and didn’t put race on it at all. Just saw the characters for who they were, and it should be the way that I can invoke “The Notebook” and absolutely fall in love with those characters and love that film. Others should be able to watch “Love & Basketball” or other love stories and feel the same way. But Hollywood is still not there yet, some years later. So I think the only thing we can do is just keep fighting to tell those stories because that’s what it’s going to take.
You mentioned in an interview that usually studios only have one slot for these drama films. Do you still find it hard fighting for that slot, even with your résumé?
Yeah, it’s crazy. Though, I will say, and only I would say in the last year, the things that I’m about to do that I’m super excited about are focused on Black women, and with Black women as the lead. This is a definitive change. The fact that I’m coming off of “The Old Guard,” which one of the stars is KiKi Layne in a big heroic role, which I’m super excited about, and now the things that I’m following up with are also centered on Black women. This is absolutely new, and I sincerely hope that that continues, because there’s just so many stories I want to tell and that need to be told.
You have a mentorship program, and you’ve been hosting Zoom workshops during quarantine with folks interesting in learning more about film. For you, what’s the importance of paying it forward that way?
I have a scholarship at UCLA for Black students with Mara Brock Akil and Felicia Henderson and Sara Finney Johnson. We give out money every year to Black filmmakers, and I’m very, very proud of that. When I was in film school, I was broke and struggling to find backers for the film, so really giving people that opportunity matters to me. Now it’s an absolute responsibility for me, having gotten through the door, to hold it open and reach back.
It’s exciting to see younger filmmakers coming up and end up going to film festivals and watching short films, because there’ll be that one that just stands out and, you know, “Damn, this person’s special.” Or a film I just recently saw, “Miss Juneteenth,” by Channing Godfrey Peoples, a young filmmaker at USC. I mean, I loved the film, and when I see that and the fact that she got it made, I just want to help, because she’s proven her hunger, proven her hustle, proven her chops. So I’m eager to help these young voices come forward.
In terms of the Zoom, honestly, it just came out of somebody on Twitter saying, “I wish I could ask Gina a question.” And given that I’m at home all day, even though I’m still working on post-production, I have a lot of time. I know back when I was starting out how enormous the industry felt and how far away it felt and how mysterious it felt, and that if I could simply answer questions, because I don’t always have the opportunity to come to a panel, now people have the opportunity to just ask. And the fact that I can share some knowledge, that’s what I love and, again, what I think is my responsibility.
Are there any stories that you haven’t told yet or that you haven’t put pen to paper on yet that you want to tell?
Oh, yeah. I have two. I can’t say them, because I’ve got to write them still. But one has been in my head for three years, and I feel the same way about it that I did with “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights,” like this thing that won’t get out of my head. So I’m really excited about that. And another one is a big historical epic that absolutely needs to be told. It’s one of our great stories, and I really want to do it for my boys. So I’m excited about that, too. And that’s a movie that I feel like the trajectory of my career is putting me in a position where I will have the power to get that made, so looking forward to that.