Girls Can Jump Too: How “Love & Basketball” Almost Changed the Game for Women in Sports Films

By Tara Zdancewicz

One of the most inspirational rituals for athletes to partake in before a big game is turning on one of their favorite sports films. Hockey players turn on Miracle. Football athletes watch as Rudy overcomes all of his unimaginable obstacles. If basketball is the sport of choice, the options are limitless—Coach Carter, Hoosiers, Space Jam, White Men Can’t Jump, and He Got Game barely scratch the surface of the holy category of basketball movies that athletes of the same sport can watch. All of these films have huge stars at the helm—Samuel L. Jackson, Gene Hackman, Michael Jordan, Wesley Snipes, and Denzel Washington, respectively. As a ceremonious occasion, athletes turn on their favorite film the night before the championship and put themselves in Jordan or Snipes’s shoes. As Jordan defeats the Monstars in his intergalactic game of basketball, a blossoming basketball star dreams of slamming the ball through the hoop just like Mike. But what is a female basketball player to do? One film that holds a special place in many female basketball players’ hearts is the 2000 film Love & Basketball. Director-writer Gina Prince-Bythewood tells the story of Monica, a girl who loves two things equally: basketball and her childhood neighbor (and fellow basketball star) Quincy. A basketball player herself, Prince-Bythewood somehow manages to do the unfathomable: create a basketball movie not only about a female athlete, but also one who is black.

Within the genre of sports movies in general, not just those about basketball, there are very few films that prominently feature women athletes. When women are cast in sports films, they are typically white. For example, the leading actresses in the roller derby flick Whip It, which is as feminist as a film could be, are all white: Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, and Kristen Wiig. Perhaps the torch of whiteness was lit and passed down by Madonna, Geena Davis, and Rosie O’Donnell in A League of Their Own. Yes, the women in these films are empowered; and yes, we should be inspired by them. But why are the only athletes for young girls to admire white? While non-white exceptions like Bend It Like Beckham and Girlfight feature an Indian and Hispanic athlete, where are the black women athletes in cinema?

Specifically speaking about basketball films, all too often female characters are typecast as the cheerleader or girlfriend character, if they are cast at all. In Coach Carter, the singer Ashanti plays Kyra, a teen pregnant with the child of one of the basketball players. Although her decision of whether to keep the baby is present, the film focuses more heavily on the father, Kenyon, as he juggles his relationship with Kyra and the state championship. In Hoosiers, legendary actress Barbara Hershey barely gets any screentime compared to her husband in the film, the head coach of the Hoosiers basketball team, played by Gene Hackman. The only female athlete in Space Jam is Lola Bunny—and she’s animated.

Not many basketball movies feature women athletes at all, and even if they do, the focus is either on the male coach (usually going through a mid-life crisis) like in Believe in Me or The Winning Season. Or the women are white as in the Disney channel film about white, blonde twin basketball stars, Double Teamed. In a sport like basketball, where so many of the athletes in the WNBA, NCAA, and high school basketball are African-American, why aren’t more of their stories reflected in basketball films?

In the late 1990s, there was a burst of light when Spike Lee’s production company bought Prince-Bythewood’s script for Love & Basketball. Finally it seemed that black basketball playing girls would get the role model they deserved. In the film, Prince-Bythewood beautifully displays the grit needed to be a female basketball player. Sanaa Lathan, who plays Monica, underwent intense basketball training in preparation for the role. While the film heavily emphasizes Monica’s relationship with Quincy, the audience still enjoys inspirational montage footage of Monica preparing for and playing in huge games from throughout her career. Most impressively, Prince-Bythewood knocks down the stereotypical depiction of the black basketball players as gay, as Monica is heterosexual, still feminine despite her aggressive ball playing. Prince-Bythewood creates a nuanced portrayal of a woman who doesn’t have to decide between the love of her life in a man and the love of her life in a sport. It’s love and basketball, not love versus basketball. Finally, young black female basketball players found a story to connect with, relate to, and watch before the big game. In the genre of sports movies, which is already so depleted with female athletes in general, black female athletes were drowning in a sea of whiteness, but Prince-Bythewood briefly saved them from drowning.

Since this film came out in 2000, not a single basketball movie featuring a black female athlete has been made. The female-led sports films currently out are Battle of the Sexes and I, Tonya, and so the filmmakers of sports films seem to be going back to their white roots and focusing only on biopics rather than traditional sports films. But young, black, female athletes are still there. Why aren’t any directors making the movies that they need? Although Prince-Bythewood gave one athletic, black, female role model with Love & Basketball, one isn’t enough. As representation of all races, sexual orientations, classes, ages, and genders is so important in the entirety of film, one constantly overlooked category of film-goers is that of the fledgling basketball stars that are black and female. They need more reflections of themselves onscreen. They need more films where they are represented to watch before the big game. They need more than just Monica to inspire them.

 

Tara Zdancewicz is pursuing her MFA in Film and Television Studies at BU. She enjoys gushing about film to the undergraduates that she teaches.

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