Gina Prince-Bythewood knows a little something about the power of persistence. When the filmmaker set out to make her feature directorial debut, “Love & Basketball,” in the late-’90s, the semi-autobiographical sports-centric romance seemed doomed to never get made. It was only after Prince-Bythewood was invited to the Sundance director’s lab to work on the script, where she staged a table reading of her work so fantastic that it sparked a bidding war (Spike Lee and his 40 Acres and a Mule won out), that the film was shot.
“I will never get over it,” Prince-Bythewood told IndieWire during a recent interview of the film’s legacy. “Every single studio turned it down. Every single production company turned it down. Sundance saved it.”
Released in April 2000 by New Line Cinema, the film proved to be a hit: earning second place at the box office in its first week of release (it was bested only by the splashy sub drama “U-571”) and making nearly $30 million. It launched not just Prince-Bythewood’s career, but also that of stars Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan.
And more than twenty years after its release, the legacy of “Love & Basketball” goes far beyond big bucks and star-minting: it’s still widely beloved, viewed as a modern classic, the kind that pops up routinely on lists of the best rom-coms of the century, and Prince-Bythewood remains hugely grateful for that impact.
As she readies to release her biggest film ever, the Sony-backed and Viola Davis-starring epic “The Woman King,” out this week after a laudatory premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaker reflected on the very personal legacy of the film. In short, it made her realize the force of her vision and voice, and she’s never forgotten it.
“And so, to fight to get it made, to fight to get anyone to believe in it … it’s such a personal story and nobody gave a shit about it. That’s soul-crushing,” she said. “But my belief in it never wavered. And so to be in this position now where it has endured, as a filmmaker, as an artist, it’s what you dream about, to have your work have that type of impact.”
Icing on the cake? At this year’s TIFF, Prince-Bythewood wasn’t the only “Love & Basketball” alum debuting a new film: so was star Lathan, who has now turned behind the camera with her own debut, “On the Come Up.”
“And the beauty, honestly, of this moment is that I’m here in Toronto with this film and Sanaa is here with her directorial debut at this festival,” she said. “I love that. I love that so much.”
Stay tuned for more from IndieWire’s Prince-Bythewood interview in the coming days. Sony will release “The Woman King” in theaters on Friday, September 16.