' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...He Got Game

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Some Drivel On...He Got Game

Maybe the funniest part of Spike Lee’s hardwood opus “He Got Game” (1998) is the college basketball coach cameos. Even now you will recognize many of them, like Roy Williams, like Jim Boeheim, each one recently embroiled in real world scandal, in a fictional ESPN segment involving the film’s principal character, #1 high school basketball recruit Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen).The coaches, all made to cheekily say the film’s title, tend to have grins on their faces, perhaps not so much from the enjoyment of being in a movie but knowing this will likely be a boon to real-life recruiting. That mixes and matches fiction and reality in a delicious, disturbing way since that’s what “He Got Game” is all about – the sport’s seedy, black market underbelly, where talented high school basketball players are stricken by all manner of leeches looking to get theirs by way of someone else’s.

Lee opens the film with a basketball montage, showing various young players shooting hoops in big cities and small towns, all set to Aaron Copland’s “John Henry.” If the score’s mood seems to elevate these moments to myth, refashioning basketball as the national game, it’s hard not to connect the actual myth of John Henry to exploited African-American basketball players which certainly seems to be Lee’s aim. Everyone wants something from Jesus, from his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) to his Uncle (Bill Nunn) to coaches like Billy Sunday, played by John Turturro whose slickness and real-life Italian heritage suggest Rick Pitino, and whose emergent recruiting practices suggest Pitino too. The person who wants the most from Jesus, however, is his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), in prison for accidentally killing his wife, Jesus’s mom.

Jake is approached by the Warden (Ned Beatty) with an offer from the Governor for temporary release to try and convince Jesus to attend Big State, alma mater of the Governor. If successful, Jake will get early release. If this plot detail sounds like a gimmick, that’s only because you haven’t read in-depth on the wild wiles of college basketball recruiting. The only reason, I’m fairly certain, my state’s ex-Governor, Rod Blagojevich, never tried a similar stunt was because no elite high school recruit was going anywhere near Northwestern. This twist on recruiting turns, naturally, into a chance for Jake to try and atone for his sins, which is never made easy, by the script or by Jesus, who is, in the meantime, not only fending off leeches but simultaneously trying to raise his sister (Zelda Harris). It’s a busy movie, in other words, but it hangs together, even Jake’s subplot with Dakota (Milla Jovovich), a woman of the night staying next door in the fleabag motel where Jake is shacked up while on his bizarro recruiting trip.

Washington practically lets Jake boil not with resentment, resigned to his sins, but anger nonetheless, all of which comes home in his gait. If actors often play prisoners a step behind, Washington has Jake move with a purpose, a walk that seems like it only has so much time on the outside and wants to take it all in. In one brief section he cuts across the city in a series of swift cuts underlining that speed. And this hurry is born out in flashbacks with the younger Jesus where Dad’s mettle-testing one-man basketball boot camps where he distinctly comes across like a man who knows time is already running out on creating a #1 NBA draft pick. And yet, in his scenes with Jovovich, Washington exudes a palpable tenderness, which renders the bright neon light pouring through the motel windows feel less, makes it feel almost like the carnival of Coney Island transplanted indoors, Jake’s time might be borrowed, but in trying to help Dakota get out of a sticky spot, he does his best to right his violent wrong.

That sort of tenderness ebbs and flows all throughout “He Got Game” and becomes crucial. There is a lot of anger here. How could there not be? In the scenes between father and son, Jesus bristles with anger for the sins his father wrought, and Allen, who I have wrote about before in this role, adopts the tunnel vision of his character quite convincingly. In a volatile flashback to a scene where Jesus and Lala discuss a baby “they” chose to abort, riding a ferris wheel, a fine juxtaposition, Jesus essentially just shouts her opinion down, which is where Lee, never one to let anyone off the hook, makes clear that even if Jesus is a savior on the hardwood, his life has transgressions.

If basketball is the film’s prominent subject, we only see it in snippets, like an early sequence cutting between Jake shooting jump shots on the prison basketball court and Jesus shooting jump shots on the playground, a moment to simply revel in Ray Allen’s perfect, sumptuous shooting form. Later, when father and son stroll the boardwalk, Jake explains how Jesus got his name, not from the Bible but from Earl Monroe (“Black Jesus”), and Lee cues up a few grainy stock images of Monroe from his days with the Baltimore Bullets, which don’t feel standard issue but like little flickering memories that sear themselves into the minds of kids when they first find and fall in love with the game.

“He Got Game” climaxes on the court with a one on one showdown between father and son to decide whether or not Jesus will sign with Big State, which sounds as gimmicky as the inciting incident but becomes so much more, an emotional bloodletting of sorts. No, the only real-real basketball game occurs early in the form of a nighttime playground contest with nothing on the line but pride. Lee sets this pickup game to Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown”, making it feel like a sudden burst of joy, when all the surrounding noise falls away and all you see is the unadorned beauty of the game.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great work. He Got Game is one of my favorite films, and that final father vs. son showdown is a cinema moment that will live in my heart forever. I also love how you described the sudden burst of joy in that first "Hoedown" match.