Don't doubt it for a minute:He Got Game is Spike Lee's paean to basketball, his bid to reveal the game as the essential and ubiquitous American pastime. The opening shots show kids all over the country playing school-yard ball to the uniquely, grandly American strains of Aaron Copeland. It's a thrilling montage—despite the fact that girls only appear once in the dozens of cuts from court to court. A boy propels himself up and over the hoop to the strains of Appalachian Spring.... It's a heavy-handed, clumsy, manipulative moment, missing only the Nike swoosh—but there I am with goose bumps.
He Got Game
directed by Spike Lee
starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen
The opening montage ends in Attica. Inmate Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is playing some ball in the prison yard when he's called into the warden's office. We learn that Jake's son Jesus is rated the no. 1 player in the country coming out of high school. The warden says the governor, a Big State alum, will spring Jake for a week to convince Jesus to choose Big State as his destination. If he succeeds, the Gov will grant him early release.
And so jailbird Jake reenters his son's life in Coney Island, where he finds Jesus (Ray Allen) in the throes of making what coaches keep telling him is "the most important decision you will ever make in your life." The pressures keep mounting: He's being offered money, NBA contracts, scholarships. Even his sweetheart, Lala (Kids' Rosario Dawson), has sold him out to a sleazy NBA agent. He finds his only relief in his relationship with his sister, Mary (yes, they're named Jesus and Mary, and yes, heavy-handed symbolism is one of Lee's dubious trademarks), whom he's raised since their mother died and Jake went to jail. (Cue the violins!)
Jesus refuses to accept his dad back into his life, and the ensuing struggle between Father and Son becomes the center of the film. True to form, Lee is dealing in myth-making here—he's clearly trying to bring an Oedipal mood to the climax, when the Son must beat the Father in a game of one-on-one if the Laws of Nature are going to be honored.
He Got Game works best when Lee concentrates on the game: The basketball scenes are superb, and the scenes that parody the seduction and exploitation of the young black male sports star have an acerbic sting.
But in his determination to paint in broad strokes, Lee loses sight of what he does best: giving us painfully funny glimpses into the everyday lives and run-of-the-mill passions of his characters. The characters in this film are crude outlines, clumsy archetypes.
Lee's strokes are particularly broad when he paints the film's women. With the exception of one virgin (Mary—get it?) and one dead saint (Jesus and Mary's mom... makes you think), all are whores. Girlfriend Lala sells out Jesus, Jesus sleeps with whores at college, and even his sorry deadbeat dad gets a little action going with an idiot hooker (Milla Jovovich in a fatal career move).
Jake moves through this landscape of caricatures toward a denouement in which he... well, you'll have to sit through the two and a half hours I endured to find out what "happens."
The basketball players in He Got Game are so radical in their transcendence of day-to-day human experiences that I, like any basketball lover, dreamed of being in their air-pumped shoes. Of course, for the female viewer this transcendence is something of a default choice. To be a woman in Lee's world is to be a whore or a virgin—so I, as a viewer, chose to be a young black male ballplayer for a couple of hours.
The black feminist theorist bell hooks wrote this of Lee's film Crooklyn, and it also applies disturbingly well to He Got Game: "The sexist politics embedded in this film often go unnoticed by viewers whose attention is so riveted by the exploits of the male characters that they fail to either identify with the female characters or bring any critical perspective to these representations."
Lee has made a film about how young black men's bodies have become the repository for American fantasies—at the expense of young black men's lives, fortunes and souls. The unintentional irony is that in so doing, he forces viewers into an untenable position: They're participating in the fantasy he's decrying.