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The Bottom Shelf #146

02.07.2008

Sanaa Lathan is a beautiful woman and quite possibly the best overlooked black actress out in Hollyweird today. Daughter of PBS director Stan Lathan and Broadway performer Eleanor McCoy, she's got way more to offer than just the two flicks featured below, but this is just for starters.

LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000)
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps

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Let's not kid ourselves. The popular form of romantic drama is supposed to be one that's unconventional and forgoes any of the antiquated tactics that might have been used for a soap opera-ish play of olden times. But every romance that is intended to tread on fresh ground usually has the heart of a much older formula. And for good reason. Because deny it as we might, happy endings are something that people are genetically wired to want. Even if you're a pessimist and never think that you're going to end up with a happy ending yourself, that still means that you believe deep down inside that people are supposed to be getting one and you're just bitter that you're being denied one. While this movie is essentially an unconventionally conventional romance, it still holds on to the heart of a pessimist until the very (happy) end.

Monica and Quincy are two young basketball lovers who meet when Monica's family moves into the house next to Quincy's when the pair are eleven years old. From the start, they have a strange love-hate thing going on that most little boys and girls living next door to each other grow up with. Quincy wants to grow up to be a basketball player like his father, a man who's struggled through the MBA playing for teams like the Clippers. Monica wants to be the first female on the MBA, worshipping Magic Johnson and refusing to conform to the standards set for young women. Eventually the two fall for one another and travel off to college together where budding adult life gets difficult for the both of them, causing that romance to suffer.

Lathan and Epps are eternally charming, drawing you in by making it appear that the only things that matter in their characters' lives are basketball and each other. Where there would be a great drama of other lovers and infidelity in other stories, this one doesn't try to walk that line. If the two are unfaithful to their love for one another, it's not so much with another person as it is with the sport that they share an affection for. I hold L & B to be up there with the pantheon of urban dramas which also manages to not portray black characters in a stereotypical and derogatory way. This is about upper-middle class, educated black folks who put their children and their families first. They're not immune to the slings and arrows from society and they don't turn into a darker version of some episode from "Dawson's Creek," but instead live and breathe as an example that it takes all kinds. I also appreciated that the film draws the story into 4 quarters, much like with the basketball format itself. And while it runs out of steam from time to time, showcasing in its execution what a fatigued player must feel like, it finds a second wind and scores points in the end. High quality, major league dramatic romance that doesn't make you feel the fool for harboring a secret optimist below your surface.

Favorite Scene:

The coach for the Spanish team giving a speech (sans subtitles) which basically translated to, "This year is next year... give the ball to Monica."

Favorite Line:

"I can't do this shit!"
"Boy... what did I tell you about using that word?"
"Can't should never be in a man's vocabulary."
"And why not?"
"Because when you say can't, you ain't a man."

Trivia Tidbit:

Director Prince-Bythewood also worked with Lathan on the 2000 HBO movie, DISAPPEARING ACTS.

See if you liked:

THE WOOD, SOMETHING NEW, BEST MAN

CATFISH IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE (2000)
Directed by: Chi Moui Lo
Starring: Chi Moui Lo, Sanaa Lathan

-- click here to buy this DVD at Amazon.com --
-- click here to rent this movie at NetFlix.com --

I grew up with this kid named Jeff who was originally from Guam. The problem wasn't that he was from Guam (or even that his name was Jeff) but that we lived in a city that was mostly Hispanic and those parts which weren't were Filipino. Which to most people who are unfamiliar with Asians meant that Jeff got called a Flip whenever someone was pissed off at him. He'd angrily deny the epithet, reminding me of Margaret Cho when she would say in her routine that she wasn't a Jap, she was a Gook. I thought about Jeff today as I watched this movie, seeing actors that I know aren't Vietnamese playing such (actress Lauren Tom was born in Chicago, making her a plain old American of Chinese decent and actor Tzi Ma was born in Hong Kong and raised in New York) and that most people who watch the movie won't get the difference. Although it ends up being amusing considering that the film wants to point out the differences in race.

Siblings Dwayne and Mai are Vietnamese refugees and adult children of a black couple (wonderfully acted as always by Paul Winfield and Mary Alice) who adopted and raised them. Dwayne is a bank manager in love and about to propose to his black girlfriend (Lathan) when his sister Mai announces that she's found their birth mother in Vietnam. This distresses their adoptive mother to no end, a woman who hasn't had biological children of her own and while she shares a strained relationship with Mai, is very close to Dwayne. The siblings' mother bursts in and starts to disrupt everyone's lives, attaching herself to the son who seems disinterested in her presence and practically ignoring the daughter who went to the lengths of finding and paying for her to move to the states. When Dwayne starts to question the loyalty of his girlfriend and reconnect with his roots, he alienates everything that he has grown to know and understand when it comes to family.

This is a choppily directed but well intentioned little mess. Feeling much like an Asian version of "The Cosby Show" at times and at others being fascinatingly captivating, right when I was about to give up on it, there would be such a huge chunk of sentimentality that would reel me back in. It's like a little kitten who has been orphaned and goes about licking on every person close by, purring and making a scene until someone pays attention to it. (Fitting description when you factor in the running gag of the blind cat.) As much as you want to smack Lo around for the glaring mistakes (Lathan tries desperately to figure out what her character is supposed to mean in the film, clear in the bewildered look in her eyes in most of her scenes), there is such genuine affection in the film that it can't be overlooked. Plus it contains an aspect of American life that rarely gets looked at. Several orphaned Vietnamese children were adopted into American families who had the best of intentions but were ill equipped with how to integrate a child of such amazingly different cultural background into their already comfortable homes. This is a lesson that contains some tears, a few awkward laughs that are nevertheless hearty (the transgendered boyfriend of the roommate seems an awful gag at first but grows on you in the end) and a feeling that in the end, you learned a little about how even though we're all a little alike, we're also very different as well. And that that's OK.

Favorite Scene:

When the mommas start throwing down.

Favorite Line:

"You have great tits."

Trivia Tidbit:

Chi Moui Lo pulls a triple threat by writing, directing and starring. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1975, and while I cannot find any information to confirm it, the story within the movie might very well be based on personal experience.

See if you liked:

SOUL FOOD, TORTILLA SOUP, THE DINNER GAME

Oh, and it's pronounced "Sa-NAA" like Sinatra without the "tra." What a name to be screaming out in bed, if you ask me.

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