The past few years have seen a promising number of films about upper-class black life (The Wood, The Best Man), and actress Sanaa Lathan has been at the forefront, appearing as a supporting player in both those films and making a remarkable starring debut in Love And Basketball. Written and directed by first-timer Gina Prince with a fluid visual style and an eye for telling detail, Basketball follows the friendship and eventual romance of a pair of basketball-playing neighbors, one cool and laid-back (Omar Epps), the other sullen and intensely driven (Lathan). Separated into four quarters, each marking a different period in its protagonists' lives, Basketball gets off to a strong start, spurred on by Lathan's forceful, charismatic, potentially star-making lead performance. Sexual but not defined by her sexuality, ambitious but grounded, Lathan's character is one of the most psychologically complex black female characters in recent cinematic memory, and she's matched by Alfre Woodard, who works wonders with what could have been a thankless role as Lathan's stay-at-home mother. Prince's work is similarly sure-handed during the film's first half, particularly in the way she turns the tables on conventional gender roles by making Lathan the pursuer and the delicate-featured Epps the sexualized object of desire. Her film also does a nice job sharply illustrating the inequities between the glamorous world of men's college basketball and the harsher realities of the women's game. But, like its main characters, Love And Basketball loses focus and intensity during its second half, as Prince throws in a series of roadblocks to the couple's happiness, moving the focus more to Epps in the process. It's an understandable and perhaps unavoidable move, but it robs the film of crucial momentum. Like the similarly solid Best Man (which Spike Lee also produced), Love And Basketball fades too early, but Lathan's performance alone makes it worth seeing.
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