Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s phones are ringing. Two of them, both cordless, side by side on a coffee table. She raises her chin slightly to listen to a distant answering machine before deciding to pick it up. This particular call is from a hair person. And while Prince-Bythewood’s hair is at that moment arranged in thick, neat braids, she lets the hair person know that it‘s “looking kinda crazy.” Although under other circumstances it would be unforgivably patronizing to begin discussion of a female director with her appearance, you have to with Prince-Bythewood. Redefining beauty as strength is part of the brilliance of her work. Replacing hot combs with cornrows, lipstick with sweat, grit and drive, the writer-director creates a vision of “black womanhood” never before seen in quite this way in the film world. But today an exception is made to the hair rule: The Los Angeles premiere of Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut, is less than nine hours away.
A love story that follows the progression of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) — childhood sweethearts and junior players who become college sweethearts and professional players — the film highlights the challenges of being both an athlete and a woman in love. It is a simple story filled with richly complicated characters. And there are moments in this film, such as the love scene between Monica and Q, that take one‘s breath away. Warned by New Line executives that the film was “too soft,” or that Monica, a virgin, wasn’t “enjoying” her first time enough, Prince-Bythewood politely refused to change the fundamental point of view — a story about love and basketball from a woman‘s perspective.
Prince-Bythewood tells the story of her life in short, unadorned sentences. Born in Chicago to a Caucasian mother (met for the first time two and one-half years ago) and an African-American father (still looking to find), she was adopted at the age of 3 weeks and raised in the largely white community of Pacific Grove, about two hours south of San Francisco. If anything was unusual about her middle-class home life, it was the fact that her parents (an Irish father and Salvadoran mother) always encouraged Gina and her two older sisters to play sports — soccer, softball, whatever. “I’m not really sure,” she says, thinking about why sports were so important, “but it was great because it definitely has had an impact on me. I‘ve never done drugs, never got drunk. In high school I was always like, ’I‘m an athlete.’ And people just stopped bothering me after that.”
Hoping to play ball while she studied film at UCLA, the six-sport athlete experienced her first professional disappointment when she failed to be recruited. “I thought I would try and walk on the team, but right before I left, we had an all-star game, and I had the worst game of my whole life and totally lost my confidence.” Unlike her film‘s star athlete, Prince-Bythewood allowed the dream to slip through her fingers. “That was always my big regret — not even trying because of the fear. So that was a little bit of what Love & Basketball helped me finally get past.” Instead of hooping, she ran track as a UCLA sophomore, making it to the PAC-10 championships in triple jump, and was admitted, as is customary, into the film program as a junior.
Landing her first job out of college, she became an apprentice writer in 1991 on the NBC sitcom A Different World, where she also met her husband-to-be, writer Reggie Rock Bythewood. “I was so lucky to get that job,” she says. “Being on a show run by black women.” From there, she went on to the short-lived comedy-drama South Central, and then moved into drama: “My husband knew the executive producer of Sweet Justice, and they wanted a black writer.” With each show, Prince-Bythewood details her increasingly frustrating history of disappointment with television, an industry undeniably ruled by narrow racial perceptions.
By 1996, when Prince-Bythewood got to Courthouse, which aired only nine episodes, history was repeating itself again. “Half the cast was black. I was so excited about that show on paper. Then the new regime at CBS came in and said you can’t have two black leads in a drama.” Vowing never to return to the TV grind unless she had a “bigger voice,” Prince-Bythewood took a few years off to write and sell her screenplay Love & Basketball, which she was able to work on full time, even while serving as a consulting producer on Felicity.
Love & Basketball wasn‘t an easy sell. Despite her connection to Spike Lee’s production company (the screenplay for his Get on the Bus was written by Reggie), 40 Acres passed on Prince-Bythewood‘s first draft after she rejected production president Sam Kitt’s suggested changes for more male-female relationship, less basketball. “I took the script back and made some good changes.” When Kitt read the new version, there were no further suggestions. He was sold. Although Prince-Bythewood had planned to shop the script at Sony, Kitt and Lee convinced her to not even “fuck with Sony,” and instead she went directly to New Line, where she had a “dream” meeting, received a bigger budget than she had requested and was basically asked, “When can you shoot?”
The most significant of the changes, says Prince-Bythewood, was the ending. “My husband and I knew something was wrong with the fourth quarter of the original script, but we couldn‘t figure it out. I had fallen back on the classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. That’s where the problem was. Monica needed to be the one that goes and fights. Once I flipped that, everything kinda came together.” In this, the film reflects a life lesson Prince-Bythewood learned early on. “It‘s okay to want to win,” she says, summing up her philosophy of love, basketball and life. “It’s okay to be aggressive, and to fight for what you want.”