“Cupid draw back your bow…
And let your arrow go…
Straight to my lover’s heart…
for me…nobody but me…”
Love is easily definable when refracted through the lens of Hollywood cinema or a great pop song like Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” A couple meet-cute, their attraction grows, heartache eventually rears its ugly head, then epiphany strikes and one person does everything they can to get the other back. It’s a rigged game of sorts; togetherness is almost always guaranteed once things fades to black. The studios are so good at reducing complex emotional experiences into easily digestible packages that one tends to forget the messiness of romance, the time it takes to develop, and the confusion it brings to a person’s life. “Happily ever after” tends to earn more at the box office than “it’s complicated.”
Instead of reinforcing this mainstream narrative, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s seamless and heartfelt filmography relishes in the tangled knots of love. In her four features to date, there are more rickety ups and downs than an old roller coaster. These extremes are punctuated by the director’s genuine compassion for human interaction, time and place. Even though each of her films exists in recognizable realities (pre-9/11 Brooklyn and Southern California, Civil Rights-era South Carolina, Twitter-age Los Angeles), they achieve a heightened sense of melodrama and happenstance that seems one step away from a sort of neo-magical realism. Falling in love does feel akin to losing your mind, so a dash of madness makes sense.
Yet Prince-Bythewood also extends and amplifies narrative duration to give her films a lived-in quality, stretching their scope to challenge rigidly defined storytelling principles like the three-act structure most Hollywood products embrace. She’s exploring relationships that take years of self-reflection and conflict to reach a flawed but harmonious state. As a result, love at first sight doesn’t mean instant happiness; it’s simply the spark that inspires a long and thorny journey toward mutual connection, an endgame that transcends fleeting feelings like lust and infatuation. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned, probably multiple times over. The weight of long-gestating regret can only be lessened by the exhilaration of finally realizing selflessness is the answer, i.e. meeting the love of your life at half court.
Simultaneously epic and intimate, the director’s best work explores this framework with avid vulnerability. Released nearly fifteen years apart, 2000’s Love & Basketball and 2014’s Beyond the Lights feel like fraternal twins separated at birth. The former charts a decade-long romance between two talented ballplayers searching for a way to coexist, while the latter follows a newly minted pop singer in the midst of an identity crisis who meets an attractive and intelligent young policeman living outside the limelight. Both films ambitiously explore the way tender expressions and subtle disappointments add up over time, creating a memory bank that not only defines the couple’s time together but also the evolution of their individual selves.
Divided up into four quarters like the sport so central to its narrative, Love & Basketball traverses a functioning African-American suburbia with its hypnotic opening crane shot, possibly an ode to the denouement of Carl Franklin’s excellent Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). This long take cruises through the crisp Southern California sky past bustling houses and street traffic before ending on a game of hoop being played by three young boys. A fourth child approaches and the trio’s leader, Quincy, asks a simple question: “Are you nice?” (Prince-Bythewood’s appreciation for kindness can also be seen in her underrated 2008 film, The Secret Life of Bees.)
After answering in the affirmative, the new addition strips off a baseball cap and reveals flowing long hair. Much to the boy’s chagrin, he is a she. Monica grabs the ball and dribbles circles around her competition, thus shattering Quincy’s elevated confidence. Moments later he violently fouls her, resulting in a scar on Monica’s chin that will act as a reminder of his insecurity and her durability. This initial meeting also confirms that gender hypocrisy in sports will always be a factor in their relationship, something the two characters must confront as they grow up together on and off the court.
Starting in high school and then during their time playing collegiate basketball at USC, Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy’s (Omar Epps) life paths are inextricably aligned through proximity and shared interest. The love born from this time period is pure and naïve, susceptible to the natural winds of change and adversity. Quincy’s growing arrogance and Monica’s brazen stubbornness stymies any hope for them to continue as a couple. They just aren’t ready for each other yet.
But Prince-Bythewood insists that this divergence is necessary. Despite separating, the essence of Monica and Quincy’s love remains alive, simply lying dormant waiting to be rediscovered when they are mature enough to fully appreciate one another. This realization happens during a hotly contested game of one on one wherein Monica plays Quincy “for his heart.” Here, Love & Basketball avoids sentimentality thanks to all the prep work it’s done with these characters. As a film, it has respected the trials and tribulations of its romance narrative, giving both Quincy and Monica time to realize that compromise is not only inevitable, but also rewarding. The gorgeous final sequence finds Monica in the WNBA and Quincy happily playing the position of adorning father on the sideline. It seems practice makes perfect, eventually.
The star-crossed lovers of Beyond the Lights don’t have the luxury of a shared past; they are strangers thrust together without warning. In a way, this reality makes the film’s emotional impact even more surprising. After receiving her first Billboard Music Award, British pop sensation Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) attempts to commit suicide off a hotel balcony, but is saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), the L.A.P.D. officer tasked with guarding her door. Much like the early scene in Love & Basketball where young Quincy and Monica roll down a grassy knoll locked in angry embrace, Noni and Kaz find each other’s bodies entangled by the sudden and dangerous situation. It’s a life-changing moment for them both, full of attraction, surprise, and panic. Fittingly, neither knows how to handle this collision.
Complicating matters are the influence of both characters’ parents. In Beyond the Lights, Noni’s tenacious mother/manager Macy (Minnie Driver) bribes the police force so that Kaz must lie about her daughter’s self-destructive actions to the press. “She’s playing her part, her script has been written,” confesses Kaz’s father (Danny Glover), a high-ranking law enforcement official who wants him to become a politician. Noni’s life path has been constructed purely as an object of public fantasy, guarded and dictated at every turn by Jean, so why would Kaz’s arrival change anything?
At first, it doesn’t, and Noni goes back to being a sexualized figure helping promote the ideology of a desperate music industry best represented by the demeaning lyrics of her rapper partner/boyfriend, Kid Culprit. Then something amazing happens; Kaz shows up again to check on Noni and the two begin hanging out, initiating a wave of intimate experiences that mesh a combination of excitement and discomfort for both parties. Kaz sees the contradictions of Noni’s glitzy existence firsthand, making him more understanding of her suicidal feelings and increasingly angry at the way her body is manipulated for profit. The tumultuous first half of Beyond the Lights culminates in a horrifying act of humiliation perpetrated toward Noni in front of thousands attending the BET Music Awards.
From here, the only answer is mutual escape. Kaz and Noni retreat to a quiet Mexican villa on the beach, and here they find a sun-drenched, hazy Eden for two. The sequence is quiet, calm, and empathetic towards characters learning how to be present with each other, and it shows off all of Prince-Bythewood's virtues as a filmmaker. Montages of touching skin, soulful music, and physical playfulness suggest spiritual rejuvenation. In a few short days these they experience a condensed version of what Monica and Quincy go through in Love & Basketball. This getaway resonates with Noni most; she finally finds the courage to shed the pop persona and embrace her true self, curly hair and all.
With Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood examines flawed characters that are trying to juggle the demands of professional and private lives, identity and expectation. This tenuous balancing act reveals itself during the post-Mexico portion of the film in which Noni and Kaz are tested by their own ambitions separate from each other. We see both characters struggling to reconcile these desires and needs as individuals, and how this relates to their potential coupling. Much like Love & Basketball, the film ends with a public display of support by a man supporting a woman who’s doing what she loves professionally in front of thousands of people. The shared excitement and energy is electric.
A rebuke of fabricated imagery, false idols, and our current pop culture idiocracy, Beyond the Lights furthers Prince-Bythewood’s fascination with a quietly radical style of melodrama indebted to the prickly negotiation of emotion over time. Like the great Nina Simone song “Blackbird” so pivotal to Beyond the Lights, her films see both pain and hope in tangible expressions of feeling. She is a filmmaker that respects those characters who freely express themselves without fear or regret. Making the decision to live this way stands in contrast to what much of our irony-laden and pessimistic American culture deems cool these days. So maybe the best way to describe Prince-Bythewood’s cinema is brave. Yes, love hurts. But relationships in her films are never one-sided; those eyes staring back at you feel the twinge of emotion with matched intensity. This makes it impossible to look away.