Monday, August 6, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: He Got Game (1998)

He Got Game (1998)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Jake Shuttlesworth), Ray Allen (Jesus Shuttlesworth), Milla Jovovich (Dakota Barns), Rosario Dawson (Lala Bonilla), Jim Brown (Spivey), Joseph Lyle Taylor (Crudup), Hill Harper (Coleman "Booger" Sykes), Shortee Reed (Coleman "Booger" Sykes  - age 12), Zelda Harris (Mary Shuttlesworth ), Jade Yorker (Jesus Shuttlesworth - age 12), Quinn Harris (Mary Shuttlesworth - age 6), Ned Beatty (Warden Wyatt), Bill Nunn (Uncle Bubba), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Sweetness), John Turturro (Coach Billy Sunday), Roger Guenveur Smith (Big Time Willie), Lonette McKee (Martha Shuttlesworth), Travis Best (Sip), Walter McCarty (Mance), Kim Director (Lynn), John Wallace (Lonnie), Rick Fox (Chick Deagan).
It is no secret that Spike Lee is a huge basketball fan – he’s almost as famous for being on the sidelines of Knicks games as anything else. That love of basketball comes through in He Got Game – the only feature Lee has ever made about his beloved sport. But just because Lee loves basketball, that doesn’t blind him to some of the problems with the business side of things – how the game exploits young, black men, and turns everyone around them – including friends and family – into exploiters as well. He Got Game is a father and son drama about the broken relationship between the best high school basketball player in America, Jesus (NBA star Ray Allen), and his father Jake (Denzel Washington) – his first coach, who drove him harder on the court than anyone else would have dared – and that spilled over into life off the court. When the film opens, the pair haven’t seen each other in a few years, because Jake has been in jail for killing his wife – Jesus’ mother (it’s a little more complicated than that, as we’ll learn). But the Governor is a big basketball fan, and wants Jesus to commit to his old Alma Mater. He agrees to let Jake out of prison for a week – and if he can get his son to commit to his school, he’ll be able to let Jake out of jail early. Essentially, the system is turning the father into yet another exploiter of this young man with talent.
His father isn’t the only one, of course, wanting his son to listen to him about what school to go to – and wanting something in return for that choice. Jesus’ Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn) thinks he should be given a job – perhaps a car, and a house, because of everything he has done for his nephew. He just wants to get his beak wet. Jesus’ longtime girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson – in only her second role after Larry Clark’s Kids) keeps pressuring Jesus to meet with an agent – something he isn’t supposed to do. Jesus is given pitches by lots of colleges – we see a weekend visit, where they quite literally throw girls at him, to try an entice him. Everyone has their hand out – there is money to be made everywhere, by everyone – except, of course, by the players. They do this in the hopes of a contract in the NBA down the line for big money. Until then, everyone else earns except them.
This is clearly the big take away from Lee’s film (if you’ve seen Hoop Dreams, you will have seen Lee give a speech similar to this to high school stars). But Lee knows he has to tell an actual story in He Got Game – and he ends up telling a great one. Like many Lee films, there is a tendency to perhaps throw too much into the film – the film runs nearly two hours and twenty minutes, and Lee probably keeps a subplot or two too many here. And yet, what he is able to do brilliantly is combine the story of the exploitation of this young basketball star, with the fraught father-son relationship drama that is the heart of the plot.
One of the reasons why this works is Denzel, of course. He is fully committed here, and his character really is more than a little bit of an asshole – a mode I like Denzel in as opposed to him playing a saint. The flashback sequences, where we see him on the court with his son are hard to take – because Jake is so hard on a kid who can’t be more than 10. It’s telling, but unremarked on, that he’s swigging from a bottle throughout some of these scenes. Five years in jail has taught Jake a lot – but it hasn’t really softened him. He knows he make a mistake with his wife – that led to her death – and he is truly sorry about that. He isn’t really sorry about what he did to Jesus though. Throughout the film though, Jake wears Jesus down – just enough. At first, Jesus wants nothing to do with him – and by the end, he’s still angry with him, but is willing to acknowledge him – maybe even help him. To be honest, Denzel has to carry the dramatic weight here, because Allen is only an adequate actor. He doesn’t embarrass himself by any means, but it’s easy to see why he hasn’t pursued acting in anyway.
I do love that while Lee hasn’t made a traditional basketball movie, he still ends He Got Game with a climatic basketball game – this time, a father and son, one-on-one. I also love how that game plays out – Lee not even pretending that a broken down, middle-aged convict would have a chance in hell against the best high school basketball player in America. Lee has set this up throughout the movie, but he doesn’t quite give us what we expect.
As I said, Lee does add too much to the film that doesn’t necessarily belong. A subplot involving Milla Jovovich as a hooker with a heart of gold (even by movie hooker with a heart of gold standards, she’s practically saintly) and her abusive pimp (Lee regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who truly is menacing) feels like it doesn’t belong. This is one of those Lee movies where his problems writing women are readily apparent – Jovovich doesn’t have much to work with, the mother (Lonette McKee) is seen in flashbacks, and is basically a martyred saint, Jesus’ younger sister (Zelda Harris – so good in Crooklyn) is given a key scene early, and then forgotten about. I do think Dawson is given a great scene, late in the film, where she acts circles around Allen – explaining what she did and why, which does complicate what could have been a “heartless gold digger” role – but that’s about it. Lee is able to provide so much detail and shading to the male characters, but the women usually do get the same treatment – and it is at times distracting here.
Overall though, He Got Game remains one of Lee’s most memorable features – with one of Denzel’s best performances, and a hell of lot to say about basketball – both on and off the court – the kind of stuff that movies mostly ignore, in search of phony uplift. Lee knows that isn’t the whole story – and he’s trying to tell that story here.

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