Celebrating 15 Years of 'Love & Basketball' with 750 Roaring Fans
ShondaLand is real, and it's a 15th anniversary immersive film screening of 'Love & Basketball' with cheerleaders and Milk Duds.
All photos by Steph Wilson
How old do I feel? Love & Basketball has reached the grand old age of 15. Though its fans—myself included—have aged a bit since it was first released in 2000, the all-American love story has never really grown tired.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees and Beyond The Lights), it cost $20 million to make and took $27 million at the US box office. It was never in any danger of winning an Oscar, but has achieved something even better: Cult status.
So it was no surprise that an immersive pop-up cinema experience held in London last weekend for 750 people was a completely sold-out affair. For the predominantly black audience, it held special significance: It was probably the first chance we'd ever had of seeing one of our favourite films on the big screen. And not just any screen, but a gargantuan 19ft monster specially erected inside Bethnal Green's York Hall for the occasion.
Part of growing up black in the UK in those dark days of dial-up Internet was that there were few opportunities to see any version of yourself reflected on screen, and what was there was hardly worth celebrating.
So, just as we had been doing for decades with music, America was our inspiration. I remember discovering and devouring films like The Wood, Waiting to Exhale, The Best Man, Soul Food, Booty Call and How Stella Got Her Groove Back—films in which black men and women got to play characters whose stories didn't rely on their skin colour.
These films barely ever made it to Britain's cinema screens, but that did nothing to dampen our collective appetite. You could find a few DVDs on the "import" shelf at record and video shops like HMV, though you'd pay an eye-watering price for the privilege.
The other choice was to take a punt on the pirate DVD man who'd sell you the latest release straight from his inside pocket, and risk 90 minutes of a blurry recording, shadowy outlines of the cinema's front row, crap sound, and occasionally laughter that wasn't yours.
This was our reality.
Back in York Hall, members of the London Lions—the city's only professional basketball team—were shooting hoops and showing off some ball skills, while young men and women dressed in Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat basketball jerseys swanned around.
The London Lions cheerleading squad—the Lionesses—danced to 90s hits including Will Smith's Gettin "Jiggy With It" and Ghost Town DJ's "My Boo." Guests queued to buy Krispy Kremes and American candy—Milk Duds, Peanut Butter Cups, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, M&Ms, and Gummy Bears.
While the Lion's mascot acted made an ass of himself—which seems to be pretty much a prerequisite for the job—attendees played in the photo booth recreating poses from the Love & Basketball's iconic film poster.
The organizers, immersive events company We Are Parable and Amacoast Cinema, say they wanted to give their 750-strong sold-out audience an experience they'd never forget.
"We've screened old school films like Coming to America and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and we thought, Why not do it with Love & Basketball? It's a film that resonated with whole generation. So many people say this is their favourite film, something they grew up with," explains organizer Anthony Andrews. "We wanted to push the envelope and disrupt the whole cinema-going experience. We hope people will now walk into a traditional screening and think 'this is boring.'"
"It's a love story," added his business partner Teanne Andrews. "Let's be honest, it's a bit of a chick flick but you can watch it again and again."
But as its female fans grow up, they have have found new meaning in the movie, including the realities of being a woman. Sold as your traditional classic boy meets girl (the love) tale told through the prism of their shared love of sport (the basketball), it is also about something else: The inequality in respect and financial support for women's sport, and the expectation that in a heterosexual relationship the man's needs or career should come first.
This wasn't lost on the predominantly female audience. As much as the film is a love story between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincey or Q (Omar Epps), it's more about the love affair you have with yourself.
Monica was the headstrong girl next door we all wanted to be—the one who didn't have to pretend to be something she wasn't, or leverage her sexuality to win the attention of the man she loved. She had her own ambition and wasn't prepared to give them up.
One of my favourite exchanges is when Q warns Monica, "If you don't store that attitude, no one will recruit you," after she takes umbrage to a referee's decision. "Please!" she spits back. "You jump in some guy's face, you talk smack, you get a pat on your back. But because I'm a female, I get told to calm down and act like a lady. I'm a ball player!"
Contemporary dance student Tamsin O'Garro, 21, attended the screening with her boyfriend, who hadn't the seen film before. "I can't believe you haven't see it," she says, genuinely incredulous. "You're a baller as well!"
"I must've been busy watching Space Jam," he replies, unfazed.
Though O'Garro would've been six when the film was first released, she still considers it "one of the main black films I watched growing up."
"It's a real love story. It shows you a lot about friendship and how you can grow as a person as well as the cost of being true to yourself," she says. "My mum always warned me that you've got two things going against you: You're a woman and you're black. Monica was focused and confident. It's good to have strong female role models."
Shakira Kumrai, 27, agrees. "Monica did her thing. She loved her basketball and she did what she had to do. I rate her for that."
"I first watched it when I was about 16 or 17 with my sister who played basketball," she said. "It was nice to see a black love story and the soundtrack is good." "The soundtrack is banging," O'Garro tells me.
Yes, that soundtrack. Amid the sounds of Lucy Pearl and Angie Stone is THE definitive Love & Basketball track: Maxwell's cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," made iconic by his signature falsetto.
It plays during one of the film's most crucial scenes: When Monica and Q get it on in one of the most memorable and sexiest encounters between two black characters since Jada Pinkett and Blair Underwood rolled around in ecstasy to En Vogue in Set It Off.
When Maxwell's voice fills York Hall, and Monica's eyes pop open wide when she sees what we're led to believe is Q's epically-sized penis for the first time, the audience spontaneously sing along, whooping and cheering at the sheer and allegedly elusive beauty that is black love.
As I Instagrammed later that evening, I don't care how many times you have seen Love & Basketball, you haven't really seen it until you've watched it with hundreds of other people laughing and kissing their teeth at the same time on mass. There is power in the shared experience.
As we left, probably high on sugar, everyone was smiling and exchanging knowing glances like we were all in on some kind of a secret.
In a way we were. Love & Basketball, flaws and all, took Hollywood's standard teen format and translated it to black characters who grew up comfortably in the middle class suburbs of LA, had big dreams and went to university. It was as close to the truth about our everyday lives as we could get.
Fifteen years on, with no contender on the horizon to snatch its crown, it's what remains at the heart of Love & Basketball's enduring appeal.