He Got Game
Screenplay : Spike Lee
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Denzel Washington (Jake Shuttlesworth), Ray Allen (Jesus Shuttlesworth), Milla Jovovich (Dakota Burns), Hill Harper (Coleman ``Booger'' Sykes), Rosario Dawson (Lala), Zelda Davis (Mary Shuttlesworth)
Spike Lee's "He Got Game" opens with a visually-arresting montage of images that suggest what the heart of basketball is all about. Beautiful scenes of kids from all over America -- black, white, boys, girls, urban, rural -- shooting hoops wherever they can. Some are playing on streets, some in wheat fields, one kid has even constructed his own basketball goal out of a bottomed-out milk crate. This sequence is gripping, and Lee uses it to set a contrast for the rest of the film, which depicts what the game of basketball has become.
Using the story of a father and son's reconciliation, Lee explores the essence of modern sports, particularly the enormous monetary and materialistic pressures put on burgeoning young athletes. The capitalistic world is a large, scary place, and athletes have become little more than expensive commodities. Audiences pay to see them, so they are worth a certain price, and those who control the money will do anything to get them on the court.
The athlete in question is Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by real-life Milwaukee Buc Ray Allen). He is the nation's top high school recruiting prospect, and when the movie opens, he is one week away from the deadline to sign a letter of intent. Everyone is asking what college he's going to go to, but Jesus isn't sure. Unlike many high school seniors, he is mature and patient, mostly because he has spent the last couple of years fending for himself and raising his younger sister, Mary (Zelda Davis) in the housing projects along Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Enter Jesus' father, Jake (Denzel Washington). Jake has been in a maximum security prison for the last six years, and Jesus denies that he even has a father any more (there are reasons behind this which involve Jake's crime, but I won't reveal them because Lee goes through great pains to slowly develop this plot thread). Jake is released from prison for one week on the condition that he convince his son to attend Big State University, the governor's alma mater. The deal is, if he gets Jesus to sign at Big State, Jake's sentence will be drastically reduced.
But Jake is hardly the only one who wants to influence Jesus. In fact, it seems like everyone wants a piece of him. These include Jesus' uncle, who wants to be compensated for the years he raised Jesus in Jake's absence; Jesus' girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson), who is dealing with a big-time sports agent to convince Jake to jump right into the pros; and his high school coach, who doesn't mind slipping him $10 grand from an unnamed source if it might speed up his decision-making process. Everybody around him has some kind of vested interest in what Jesus does.
On its surface level, "He Got Game" works as an indictment of the current basketball system. From the greasy sports agent who is incapable of mentioning an object without also affixing a price to it, to the fictional Tech University that sets Jesus up with big parties and slutty women, Lee's film puts a harsh spotlight on what goes on behind the scenes in college and pro basketball. Of course, this is really nothing new -- it's a long-established fact that the game is twisted and materialistic.
The heart of "He Got Game" is really in the relationship between Jesus and his father. The loss of fatherhood within the urban African-American community is a pressing issue, and Lee's film creates a touching and plausible relationship between an estranged father and his bitter son. Neither Jesus nor Jake is a perfect person, and the way they eventually come together is sometimes painful, but always convincing.
Their relationship is also burgeoned by a surprisingly religious tone. There is a great deal of talk about the nature of God, prayer, and redemption, which is what the film seems to really be about. Jake finds redemption in his son's eyes, Jesus redeems himself by making the right choices in a hostile environment, and Lee even includes a sub-plot about a prostitute named Dakota (Milla Jovovich) who Jake helps to redeem as well.
As Jesus, Ray Allen gives a better performance than one would expect from a professional athlete (although he looks and sounds much older than a high school senior). Denzel Washington, who has already established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, turns in a quiet, but moving performance as Jake, a man who knows he has made mistakes, but is willing to do what he can to repair them. Jake is a fascinating character, although the screenplay does him some injustice near the end of the film by having him lash out violently and start acting like a street hood for no particular reason.
Nevertheless, it is at the simple dramatic level that "He Got Game" succeeds best, not at the socially-challenging level of indicting the basketball system. After all, this is a film that features cameos from just about every big-name moneymaker in pro basketball, including Dick Vitale, Charles Barkley, and Michael Jordan, not to mention several major collegiate coaches. Even the cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed ("Clockers," "Girl 6") at times resembles a Nike commercial.
As good as "He Got Game" is, it's hard to forget just how involved Spike Lee is with the professional basketball system he's attacking -- from his court-side seats at Knicks games to his involvement with the advertising arm of the Nike conglomerate. Although these connections probably allowed him a certain insight into the subject most directors wouldn't have, it also risks making his efforts look somewhat disingenuous.
©1998 James Kendrick