Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Love Stories of Gina Prince-Bythewood: LOVE AND BASKETBALL and BEYOND THE LIGHTS

I have the privilege of living within walking distance of one of the oldest art house theaters in the country, Harvard Square's Brattle Theater. I don't take advantage of this local treasure nearly as often as I could, but when the Brattle announced a partnership with the Roxbury International Film Festival and The Color of Film to screen a series called "In Our View," featuring films directed by African American women, you bet I put the dates down in my calendar. One date especially: this past Saturday, when the repertoire series focused on love stories.

During the first snowfall of the season, I walked into Harvard Square in my mittens and gloves and sat down in the quiet theater for an amazing double feature, the first and the most recent films by director Gina Prince-Bythewood: Love and Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014). As an article about the series on Vanyaland points out, only 12.5% of film directors who released a feature film during 2013 and 2014 were people of color; just 1.6% were women of color. So it's pretty rare to get the chance to view two such films, back to back, and to get to marvel at the talent, beauty, and skill of some pretty amazing black women on display, not on tiny television but up on a large screen.

Even more of a treat was the feminism that played front and center right alongside of actresses Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Lights), a feminism that played out not just in the romantic relationships at the heart of each film, but also in the larger family and social dynamics in which these two young women live.

Love and Basketball traces the "four quarters" of Monica Wright's relationship with Quincy "Q" McCall, from the day in 1981 when Monica's family moves into a well-heeled LA neighborhood next door to the McCall family to the days in 1993, right before the adult Quincy is set to marry another woman. Q's first sight of eleven-year-old Monica is as an androgynous kid who asks to join the basketball game, a game of which Q is the obvious leader. When Monica doffs her cap after Q says "yes," he and his two friends can't believe the long-haired girl who is revealed has the least chance of hanging with them on the court. Especially not Quincy, whose father is a professional basketball player and who is determined to follow in that father's footsteps. "I'm gonna be the first girl in the NBA," Monica declares; "I'm gonna be in the NBA, you're gonna be my cheerleader," Quincy counters. But Monica proves more than able to hold her own, frustrating Quincy to such a degree that he finally shoves her off the court, scraping her face roughly on the grass. Monica's mother and sister fuss about the injured Monica in the bathroom in their new home, not able to understand why she can't just act like a girl. But when they finally leave her to herself, Monica breaks into a smile. She's a ball player, and now has the scars to prove it.

The two neighboring families arrange for Quincy to take Monica to school (love those banana bicycle seats!), during which cocky Quincy asks Monica if she wants to be his girl. She agrees, they seal the deal with a kiss (5 seconds long, which Quincy counts off on his fingers), but when he insists that she has to ride behind him on his bike, their short-lived pre-teen romance descends into a punching, rolling wrestling match.

icing each other's injuries
Through the rest of middle and high school, Monica and Quincy focus on playing basketball, warily eyeing each other from across the small patch of grass that separates his bedroom window from hers. Prince-Bythewood highlights the differential treatment families and the culture at large gives to female vs. male athletes: Monica is labeled as having a "bad attitude" on the court because of her drive, and gets penalized by the refs for showing her emotions or acting the least bit aggressive on the court. The same actions make Quincy into a big man on campus. Quincy also has the girls buzzing around him like bees, while Monica never dates. Quincy's mom warns him against being taken in by a grasping girl, while Monica's bemoans her youngest daughter's tomboy ways. Would it really be that hard for her to stop slouching around in sweats and spend more time styling her hair?

But the ballplayer in each of them can't but respect the skill and determination of the other, and by the time their college plans are finalized (Quincy gets to announce at a press conference which of many schools that have been recruiting him he will choose; Monica waits and waits for a single letter offering her a place at a school with a women's basketball program), the two finally find their way romantically to the other.

Life in college isn't as easy as either of them had imagined, though, especially when Quincy's beloved father proves to have feet of the stickiest of clays, and Monica chooses to put her own ballplaying above Quincy's needs. Quincy's punitive reaction might have led to a "oh, you should have made a different choice, girl" kind of message, but instead, Prince-Bythewood takes the opposite stance. And at the film's end, guess who is playing professional ball, and who is holding the baby and cheering on at the sidelines?


Beyond the Lights ends with a similar scene: British pop star Noni Jean singing her solo heart out on a stadium stage, with new love Kaz standing in the wings, cheering her on. But Noni's journey to that triumphant moment is more emotionally fraught than was Monica's. The daughter of a black father who abandoned her white mother, Nona has been the means through which Macy Jean has tried to prove that she's not the nothing everyone said she was when she had a black child out of wedlock. Acting as her manager as well as her mom, Macy and Noni's record label have propelled the sweet-singing Noni into a sexualized pop sensation, pairing her in duets with a white working class British rapper (Kid Culprit) to worldwide acclaim. But on the very night she and Kid Culprit win a major award, she sits on the edge of her hotel balcony, daring herself to jump off.

Her mother's frightened scream brings the LA police officer guarding her door rushing in. Soft-spoken Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) talks Noni off the ledge with the words "I see you," something Noni is not at all sure anyone else can or does. But when Noni's handlers convince him to attend a press conference during which Noni describes the incident (caught on film by paparazzi) as an "accident," Kaz is disgusted by the lies. Kaz, like Noni, has been groomed from a young age, but for a far different role: major in political science, serve as a police officer, then segue into a political career. Kaz's police officer father warns him against getting involved with the volatile pop star, but the vulnerability and sadness that he saw behind the sex and chains and purple hair keeps drawing Kaz back.

Noni's record label, though, would far prefer that she continue her "fake/real" relationship with Kid Culprit than date a cop. Noni's attempt to go her own way leads to pretty disastrous on-stage consequences; though Kid says he's not hurt by Noni's push for independence, it's obvious that he's come to rely on the way that pop culture uses the symbolic (and often actual) subjugation of female black bodies to make working class white males feel empowered. And he punishes her for it, in the ugliest of manners.

In the aftermath of this debacle, Kaz "kidnaps" Noni away from all her handlers, and the two drive to Mexico with Kaz's dog. There, they rest, have sex, tour the local markets, and basically give themselves the freedom to act like two people falling in love. Two of the most poignant scenes occur during this "happy idyll": Noni cuts out the hair weaves that hide her naturally curly hair, as if she is cutting the chain-bedecked, sexually provocative black girl trying to evoke the look of a white girl strand by strand. And at a Karaoke bar, Noni sings an a capella version of Nina Simone's heartbreaking "Blackbird," a song we earlier saw the young Noni sing during her first talent show as a child.

But when Noni's impromptu song is caught on video and goes viral, will Noni be sucked right back into the maelstrom of pop stardom, a maelstrom that leaves no room for anyone, not even Noni herself, to be seen for who she really is? Or who she wants to be? Is Noni destined to live out Simone's anthem: "So why you wanna fly, blackbird / You ain't never gonna fly"?

I couldn't help but think of the definition of feminist romance that Aya de Leon, my fellow presenter at this past October's Boston Bookfair, created: "A feminist romance is one in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves." I can't think of two other films which embody this principle more clearly than Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights.

Love and Basketball Trailer:

Beyond the Lights trailer:

Photo credits:
Love and Basketball
Kissing: YouTube
Icing: Twitter
WNBA: Giphy

Beyond the Lights
press conference: LA Times
Noni and Kid Culprit: Collider.com
Concert: Huffington Post


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