He Got Game
Spike Lee shoots and scores in his best film in years.
Thursday, May 7, 1998
A great basketball player, almost by definition, is someone who has grown up in a constricted world, not for lack of vision or ambition, but for lack of money; his environment has been limited to home, gym, and playground, and it has forced upon him, as a developing basketball player, the discipline of having nothing else to do.
--John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are, 1965
Americans idolize athletes not simply for their athletic prowess, but because the Jackie Robinsons of this world fit very neatly into American mythology: They are disadvantaged kids who, through strength and discipline, overcome tremendous obstacles to conquer the world.
Today, the stakes which accompany this myth are much higher: The disadvantages can be deadly, the payoff--if it comes--is excessive beyond belief with multi-million dollar contracts and world-wide celebrity. For the disadvantaged, games such as basketball are no longer a fun activity played on a corner lot, but a religion which offers perhaps the only hope of salvation.
It is in this do-or-die environment that writer/director Spike Lee sets his new film, He Got Game, an intelligent, heartfelt view of the distorted world of professional sports, as seen through the experience of a young African-American athlete and his desperate father. With an expert eye, Lee examines "the discipline of having nothing else to do," and the familial and social dynamics which accompany it. With a soaring score, a tight script, and superb performances, Lee crafts a film that is certainly one of his best and will surely be remembered as a classic sports picture.
As He Got Game opens, prison inmate Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), incarcerated in Attica for accidentally killing his wife, is presented with an opportunity for freedom if he can accomplish one simple task: persuade his 18-year-old son Jesus (Ray Allen), the number one high school basketball player, to sign with Big State, the Governor''s alma mater. If Jesus signs, Jake might go free. The proposition is complicated by the fact that since the death of his mother, Jesus harbors enormous resentment toward his father.
Jake reappears in Jesus'' life just as the young player is about to make "the biggest decision of his life," and a swarm of coaches, manipulative agents, greedy relatives and duplicitous friends circle Jesus, all hoping to get in on the action of this young man who will surely be the next Michael Jordan. Jake also has an agenda and during the ensuing days, father and son make an often stormy attempt at reconciliation.
Joining these two center screen is the game itself. For Jake, who drove his young son mercilessly in an effort to make the boy excel on the court, basketball is life, the one and only way out of the deprivation of their Brooklyn life. For Jesus, it is, as McPhee says, the only option for a young man in a constricted world. We see flashbacks of Jake and a young Jesus training well into the night, with Jake abusively badgering his son, forcing him to perfect his talent that will someday provide deliverance.
Lee presents both the good and bad sides of the game, with graceful, balletic sequences played against the stirring strains of Aaron Copland''s "Appalachian Spring" and later, "Fanfare for the Common Man." We also see basketball''s other face, a corrupt business full of blood-sucking leeches who tempt Jesus with money, cars and sex. The game represents the best and the worst of America. Which door will Jesus choose? Is this what his father forced him to train so hard for?
As Jake, Washington gives an inspired performance, creating a character of great dignity and integrity, but one who is also deeply flawed. Allen, the number five NBA draft pick in 1996, surprisingly holds his own in this, his first attempt at acting. As Jesus, Allen possesses the innocence of a lamb about to be delivered to slaughter.
Along the way there are wonderful performances by a strong supporting cast, plus cameo appearances by leading college coaches and pro players like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.
If the game represents hope--as it does for some--then it is hard to underestimate the importance of the words "he got game" to the desperate. In this film, Spike Lee brilliantly does justice to the phrase and to those who speak it, offering multi-layered social commentary, fine drama, and a uniquely memorable perspective of this American discipline born of "having nothing else to do."