For a guy who doesn’t want to be called “the black Woody Allen,” Spike Lee sure invites the comparison. Look at his new movie, He Got Game, which opens with some gorgeous hoops-across-America photography of kids shooting baskets, all set to music by Aaron Copland. Barring a few songs by Public Enemy, the musical score to He Got Game is all Copland. It would be fairly unprecedented if Woody Allen hadn’t already done much the same thing, setting his rhapsody in Manhattan to music by great American composer George Gershwin.
Whatever their differences, Woody and Spike share one characteristic in common — they’re both in love with New York City and doggedly devoted to the people they find there, to the exclusion of a more balanced worldview. If Allen’s Manhattan is an Upper East Side whitewash of the real New York, Lee’s stylized version of Crooklyn can hardly be any more valid as a reflection of “reality.” Sure, Woody’s ever-more-brittle personality dictates the arc of his stories, just as it’s hard to forget that somewhere behind the camera, the little loud guy who played Mars Blackmon is still calling the shots. What’s wrong with that?
The point is, forget about “realism.” Lee’s strength is his signature flashiness, the sense you get that he’s making exactly the movie that he wants to make, and to hell with you if you don’t like it. (I’m still fond of Girl 6, largely for that one scene at the very end featuring a kiss on a Manhattan street as multi-colored telephones rain down all around.) It serves him well, since other aspects of his craft could use some work. Natural dialogue, for instance, has never been Lee’s strong suit. Instead, a picture like She’s Gotta Have It found a sort of truth in the kludgy delivery of catchy one-liners (“Please baby please baby baby baby please”), and Do the Right Thing actually made a virtue of its own garish theatricality (a day in the life, indeed). He also has trouble breaking his characters out of simple stereotypes — in his best work, it’s the charm and skill of Lee’s actors, not his screenwriting, that makes us feel that they live and breathe.
Good thing, then, that He Got Game employs the simply massive skills of Denzel Washington. Washington plays convict Jake Shuttlesworth, who gets out of jail free for just one week. If he can convince his estranged son, a high-school basketball phenom named Jesus (NBA star Ray Allen), to sign a letter of intent to play ball for the governor’s alma mater, the governor may spring him early. If he fails, it’s back in the box.
Calling this scenario “unlikely” is probably giving it the benefit of the doubt. But it’s a canny set-up for the father/son relationship, which Lee ably spins around the concept of basketball as a great American institution, part of the fabric of family life. As Shuttlesworth embarks on his own mission impossible, the anxiety is palpable. How exactly does a father return unannounced to the life of a boy he no longer knows? What happens to his pride when he asks that son to give up his own freedom in return for his father’s freedom? How does his son’s passion for basketball fit into their relationship, and what kind of sentence is Jake serving, anyway?
Allen is pretty flat, but believable enough, in his role. His distance is suitable, in a way, for a character who’s become so numb to the advances and entreaties of all the people around him. Everyone wants to sacrifice Jesus for their own ends, and the obvious religious connotations of his name are milked for all they’re worth. Lee’s depiction of the hungry sports media machine is spot-on. If anything, sportscasting today is even more amped-up than He Got Game can indicate.
And so Jesus is tempted, by six-figure sports cars and cash payments up-front, by verdant college campuses and busty white girls with a fixation on black basketball players. Jesus got game, but it’s easy to forget that basketball is really about the player, the ball, and the hoop when everything around him smells of sex, money, and power. More than the good-natured Jerry Maguire, He Got Game really does blast the state of contemporary sportsmanship.
Lee’s take on the contemporary family is intriguing, too. After the death of his mother and the incarceration of his father, who struck and accidentally killed her, Jesus was left more or less alone, charged with bringing up his kid sister. By all indications, he’s done a good job. And so when Jake steps back into his life, Jesus is reluctant to have anything to do with him. In case you’re expecting a scene of teary reconciliation where the younger Shuttlesworth realizes that Jake is his dad after all, forget about it. He Got Game is nowhere near that soapy and predictable.
Spike still stubs his toe in a few places. Women get a pretty raw deal in this film. The girls around Jesus are either duplicitous (his girlfriend, who’s on the take from a sports agent who wants to sign Jesus) or just horny for him (the girls on campus, who come on like porn stars). The woman in Jake’s life is, predictably, a pretty hooker (Milla Jovovich in an encore of the little-girl performance she perfected in The Fifth Element). Compare to Jesus’ mother, seen only in flashback, who comes across as an absolute saint. A little more variation in both directions would have been welcome, and might have helped liven up some of the exposition. Too often, we know exactly where one of Lee’s scenes is going, and just have to wait to see how it gets there.
But when the film is good, it’s very good. He Got Game has the charmed gait of a story told by a skillful narrator who’s making things up as he goes along, finding the best way to embellish the tale and bring his audience into the picture. Part of that is Lee’s time-tested tactic of having characters speak directly into the camera — it’s gotten less jarring over the years, and here it’s used mostly to show us Jesus’ point of view as coaches and agents try to win his allegiance. The narrative moves forward and backward in time skillfully, revealing Jake’s true character in bits and pieces. And while the movie runs more than a few minutes past the two-hour mark, that actually made me happy — I just settled deeper into my theater seat, and never felt the urge to check my watch.
In the end, He Got Game is flawed, but sharp and moving. Lee has a talent for helping us think about American iconography in a different way. When that basketball arcs across the screen at the beginning and end of the movie, with Copland swelling on the soundtrack, it’s Spike’s way of asserting that basketball is today as significant a part of our shared culture as baseball was in the past. And when father and son square off on the court, aiming to put a ball through that hoop over and over again, it’s an unusual metaphor for the punishing, disciplined, graceful relationships we share with the people we love. As the title song puts it, “Damn the game if it don’t mean nothin’.”
Written and directed by Spike Lee
Cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed
Starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1