Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut, the stellar romance Love & Basketball, enters the Criterion Collection this month. Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps respectively star as Monica Wright and Quincy McCall, two childhood friends whose mutual love for basketball conflicts with their devotion to one another. Wright, labeled a “tomboy” by her homemaker mother, Camille (Alfre Woodard), refuses to be told she can’t play the sport that she loves despite few pathways for women to do so. McCall, on the other hand, is the son of professional player Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert), who feels closest to his father when he’s on the court. Despite his parents’ insistence that he find a more intellectual path, McCall has little of the social difficulties Wright faces when pursuing his athletic dreams.

Prince-Bythewood’s script is incredibly thoughtful, creating two characters who exist in worlds of their own that feel fully fleshed-out and real. Their conflicts with their parents never feel shallow. Camille and Zeke are given substantial development that informs their parenting relationships. Lathan and Epps are wonderful as their characters, and neither boils down to stereotypes or gets off easy when they make mistakes. The ups and down of their relationship feel natural to the characters rather than like the dictations of a two-hour romance plot cycle. The film feels like the sort of romantic cinema we don’t see particularly often anymore.

The Criterion release includes a new 4K digital restoration that serves as a director’s cut of the original film. It also features the audio commentaries from the original DVD release, as well as a new mini-documentary shot in 2021 with interviews of Prince-Bythewood, Epps, Lathan, Woodard and the producers. Prince-Bythewood also participated in two features, one about editing the film and one featuring her in conversation with WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes and actress / writer / director Lena Waithe. Additionally, this release features two of Prince-Bythewood’s early short films.

It’s a substantial release.