Spike Lee’s ambitious new movie, He Got Game, begins with a montage of basketballs slowly flying through the air and landing in the sweet embrace of hoop and net. The shooters, solitary teenagers, practice on outdoor courts all over America – in city playgrounds, in the suburbs, and in the country, too, with lush farms and fields in the background. The sequence is accompanied by Aaron Copland’s music – Copland, the most American of American classical composers, whose work, with its mixture of hymns, homely western tunes, and pounding rhythms, seems at once pastoral and urban. Okay, we get Spike Lee’s point: Basketball is now the American national game, the unifying sport. It is also a game that at the professional level has come to be dominated almost entirely by blacks, a game that increasingly seems an emanation of African-American style. (That opening montage pauses every once in a while for a close-up of a black basketball player staring proudly at the camera.) In He Got Game, Spike Lee celebrates basketball as the apotheosis of black-American glory without lying about the game’s effect on the black community. The movie is startlingly candid. In the real world, removed from the idealism of lonely shooters, basketball is drenched in money, envy, and betrayal. The movie is a volatile combination of ambitious mythmaking and nasty reality, and like most of Spike Lee’s work, it is also an inextricable combination of good and bad.
Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, has a slightly gimmicky story to tell. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), a man serving time in Attica for murder, receives a weeklong leave. The warden gives him a task: Jake has to persuade his own son, the star of Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island and the hottest prospect in the country, to accept an athletic scholarship from the alma mater of the governor. If he is successful, his prison time may be shortened. But the son hates Jake, a good athlete who failed to make the pros; Jake drove the boy too hard, and after one of their combative court sessions, a fight spilled into the kitchen, and Jake accidentally killed his wife. The center of the movie is a tug of war between a guilty father and a vengeful son who has lost his mother. But around this drama, Lee, in his abrupt, throw-everything-in-the-mix style, arrays the spectacle of enormous success in a poor and depressed neighborhood. Jake’s son, a presumptive basketball millionaire, is leaving home, and people want to grab a piece of him – or pull him down.
The kid’s name is Jesus Shuttlesworth, and he’s a peculiar kind of American savior: He’s going to succeed in order to redeem his fallen neighbors; he’s going to play for everyone’s sins. Spike Lee trained Ray Allen, the 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks guard, to take on the role, and Allen, graceful and fast in the basketball scenes, gives a somberly effective minimalist performance. Jesus is a serious young winner, with the inflexibility and humorlessness of youth; his head is screwed on so tight he can see nothing but what’s right in front of him – his career and his role as guardian of the kid sister left with him after his father was sent away. He’s fanatically insistent on doing the right thing, and he regards his father as a destroyer and a loser. As Jake, Denzel Washington gives a confident and wide-ranging performance. In the flashback scenes, we see Jake’s anger and frustration as he dominates the boy he knows is going to surpass him. (The only thing worse than a stage mother is a sports dad.) But after years in prison, he’s a man who has mortified his instincts, and Washington is quiet, even abashed, his steps tentative, his body held in. His Jake doesn’t want trouble, but he’s hungry for any kind of love he can get. The prison officials (including a frighteningly unsympathetic Jim Brown) drop Jake in a Coney Island fleabag hotel, where he meets and sleeps with a beaten-up whore (Milla Jovovich). The scenes between Washington and Jovovich – not airborne this time, as she was in The Fifth Element – are about the most tender Spike Lee has ever filmed.
Jake approaches his son, tries to master him and can’t. The father-son relationship – the missing connection in black life – has shown up in a number of recent movies, and although it has a slightly corny feeling here, as of a thrice-told tale, at least it’s strongly acted and brilliantly staged. The inevitable climactic game of one-on-one, with Copland’s music throbbing under it, reverses the earlier father-son games. This time, Jake knows his son has to beat him if they are ever to have any kind of reconciliation.
At times, He Got Game has the feeling of a black morality play. More and more, Spike Lee exercises his citizenly function of telling the truth to the African-American audience, but always, of course, in his own style of flashing collage. He wants to get people to face things; he hardly ever lets up on his tense, aggressive, hectoring manner. Jesus Shuttlesworth is surrounded by people who try to cash in on him – not only his uncle but his girlfriend, his coach, a sports agent, all want a piece of the action. And other people want to pull him down. These creeps jump into a scene or two and recede. There is, for instance, an ambiguous local gangster who taunts Jesus with the dangers of drugs and whores, and Lee throws onto the screen little scenes of degraded people in crack dens. In his own antic way, Lee reinforces the disastrous impression among some black teens that they have no serious alternatives between overwhelming success as athletes and overwhelming catastrophe as crackheads.
Spike Lee is a very literal-minded moralist, and he’s not above luridness. The hero has to face more temptations than the biblical Jesus did when he was under siege from Satan. In the movie’s worst scenes, a sports agent rants on and on about money (his house has more fancy red cars than a Park Avenue showroom); later, Jesus goes off to look at a prospective university, only to be thrown by another black basketball player into bed with two sluttish blonde coeds. All the white college girls at this particular U appear to be pathetic whorish suck-ups, oohing and aahing over Jesus. Lee is offering some easy laughs to the black audiences here – the scenes are unworthy of him.
But just when the movie seems overwrought and cheap, something great will turn up – a series of straight-into-camera appearances by actual NBA and NCAA coaches, for instances. The men are so square that they are far out – obsessive, insanely emphatic, their faces contorted by the relentless desire to impose themselves on others. The comedy of pro basketball is produced by the big-money pressures and competition. The movie looks at all that with wary amazement, but Spike Lee knows there’s no way of going back to the ecstasy of the single shooter, alone on his court somewhere in the city or way out in the country at dusk.