He Got Game (1998)
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee
Cinematographer: Malik Hassan Sayeed
Producer: Jon Kilik and Spike Lee
by Jon Cvack
He Got Game is a movie that makes me realize how systemic racism is within Hollywood and its fans. The further I dig into Spike Lee’s filmography, the more I discover an exceptionally rich and complex series of films with a unique style that rivals any of his 80s/90s peers from the period - Coens, PTA, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, and so on. Until this year's BlacKKKlansmen, it never seemed like Spike Lee earned a comparable position, as after adding his filmography to my master list, I discovered almost a dozen films highly rated films, half of which I'd never even heard of. As I started to dig, I realized his style and voice is as exciting and unique as any of peers.
One of the first of his lesser known films I checked out was Clockers ('95) which is an urban crime drama in which the colors and camera work nearly pop off the screen - allowing you to see the style that would evolve and culminate in 25th Hour ('01), and yet while he’s made a few other pretty good films (Inside Man ('06), Chi-Raq ('15)), nothing has come to the volume and craft of most of his work from the late 80s through the 90s. It left me wondering why so many of his more black-focused films were so seldom discussed or mentioned. While I don’t think it’s completely due to overt racism (though I'm sure it is for some viewers), I do believe it had to with white audiences and film critics alike never “feeling” like watching the films the way they would Summer of Sam ('99), Inside Man, or 25th Hour - films which coincidentally revolve around mostly white characters (i.e, racist-lite).
Before I had begun to grasp Spike Lee’s style I had always assumed that He Got Game would be a more traditional sports film - featuring the struggles of aspiring athletes in the black lower classes per the likes of Hoop Dreams (1994) as a narrative version. And while exploring those ideas, it does so with Lee’s unique and brilliant voice.
The film opens up with a lyrical series of images which, knowing Lee’s penchant for basketball, is very much his ode to the game. Never have I actually turned off my Netflix DVD to pay for an HD version of the stream, but the images were so gorgeous that I knew I was failing to fully experience the event. We then meet convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) who’s been called in by the warden regarding his son, Jesus (Ray Allen ; an actual NBA star), who’s the number one high school prospect, juggling countless lucrative offers to the elite basketball programs across the nation. The prison warden is buddies with the governor who’s determined to have Jesus attend “Big State University” and offers to release Jake in order to get his son to sign over, and if accomplished, will be released early.
Jesus is dating the sexy Lala Bonilla (Rosario Dawson), who’s able to skate a fine line between love for Jesus and exploring other men behind his back. Jesus despises his father, where after practicing basketball as a twelve year old boy, was pushed too hard by his dad, vowing to quit the game and storming home where his family eats dinner. His dad arrives moments later and an argument breaks out, with Jake attacking his son, causing their mother to intervene who Jake then pushes, causing her to trip and bang her on the counter, dying shortly after. When Jake returns home, Jesus wants nothing to do with the guy.
Life is no easier beyond Jesus’ strained relationship with Jake, as he faces constant pressure from every angle; from his coach to sister Mary (Zelda Harris) to even his foster parents, all who are hoping to get something from the innumerable offers - from a brand new car to the tens of thousands of dollars being offered with no strings attached. In some ways the logic is somewhat sound, as given these individual’s role in shaping Jesus, and that the schools seem to have zero reservations about offering such lucrative gifts, the aspiring athletes wonder why they can’t just take the gifts even if the school says no.
In one of the most powerful scenes, Lala discusses how she knows where their relationship is headed - aware of the slattern white girls that will (and do) toss themselves at Jesus which he won’t be (and isn’t) able to resist. While he’s off getting a college education and on track to become a great NBA star, she’ll be left in Coney Island with little in the ways of opportunity. While Jesus does his best to calm her concerns, having just had a threesome with two prostitutes (or so they seemed), Jesus also grasps the reality.
Meanwhile, Jake is struggling with living in the dregs of the city, living in the local brothel where he meets a prostitute Dakota Burns (Milla Jovovich) who’s chronically beaten by her pimp, with Jake eventually developing feelings for her that - as one of the few faults of the film - don’t really progress to anything beyond a raunchy sex scene between the two, leaving us wondering if Jake actually liked her or just needed to get off.
The truth is ultimately revealed to Jesus, who resents letting his guard down to try and accept Jake back into his life when it was all for ulterior motives; namely, Jake's release. In the end, the two are left to play a game of one on one in order to decide Jake’s fate - if he wins, Jesus will go to Big State, if Jesus wins, he’ll toss the contract and Jake will return to prison. While Jesus ultimately triumphs in the game, blowing out his aging father, he decides to go Big State regardless. However, as he didn’t sign the contract, the warden and governor don’t think that Jake actually accomplished the goal, releasing a story that Jake had actually escaped and is now facing even more time tacked onto his remaining fifteen year sentence.
The subtle blend of politics never takes the forefront, positioned subcutaneously, providing each scene with a dual layer - between that of a young man with a troubled past, attempting to remain righteous against a tide of others’ self interest, and the system that makes such a struggle so significant. While there doesn’t seem to be a racial component behind Jake’s conviction at first sight, one could argue that his commitment to Jesus’ success was in order to get him out of the streets.
Denzel Washington provides an equally balanced performance, struggling between vice and virtue. He is far from a perfect man, and yet Washington provides such depth, where regardless of what he did and does, we respect the man. Reading the trivia, I learned that Ray Allen was an actual NBA star, in which the primary struggle was how to find a person that could look to be in high school. Throughout the film I was left wondering why the guy hadn’t gone on to do other projects as he's that good; another testament to Lee's talents.
Both Jake and Jesus are up against a system that only seems to value their athleticism. It begins with the colleges, who while continuing to raise tuition, provide these lavish gifts. And while I’m aware of the satire, this is a common problem facing many young athletes courted by wealthy programs. To watch as the potential for money and expensive things blinds even those most close to Jesus, including his sister who starts to hear about the money, or Lala and her desire to at least get out of the city, which only his money could help her do, or his foster father who even goes so far as to accept a Mercedes in order to sway Jesus’ mind. The whole story takes on the feel of Greek tragedy, which Spike Lee would revisit more literally with ChiRaq, as it’s very much about the dangers of temptation - the danger of failing to give the people what they want (who Jesus loves); the danger of Jesus making himself vulnerable to his father, knowing the risk of pain; and the dangers of carnal desire, which he eventually succumbs to; whether women, the bottle, and his short temper. It all operates within a system that will only provide the wealth and glamor to those in the lower classes who have the raw physical agility to compete at the highest professional level. Allen and Washington portray two incredible, rich, and challenging characters that are able to preserve plausibility in a story that could have so easily become histrionic.
The greater tragedy is how little, if ever, I’ve heard of this film, as aside from the standard definition, the old DVD couldn’t play on my new television, providing a strange aspect ratio. I can recall hearing about the film a few times, but never with the accolades it deserves. I was left wondering if Jesus ever loved the game, or whether he felt it was only way out. I’m finishing this on the first Sunday the majority of NFL teams reacted to Trump’s call to fire those who protest, all after he castigated Steph Curry for rejecting Trump’s invitation to the white house. Trump defended White Supremacists right to protest, calling some of them good people, but when a black player takes a knee in peaceful protest during the National Anthem, the President of the United States demands that he be fired for insulting America. It’s a moment like this where you wonder how he sees black people; not as equal members of a society which possess all of the privileges the constitution guarantees but rather as second rate humans, relegated to an arena where they perform physical acts (as Trump has criticized).
He Got Game shows that side of life, with the governor and warden who use Jake as a means to an end, rescinding their agreement and making his life all the worse for it, never portraying an ounce of guilt. They would say it was all for Jesus’ future, and yet he’s just a thing to make many others rich; perhaps irreplaceable, but far from their concern or worries so long as he’s healthy, at which point they’d otherwise abandon him. This is a must see film.
BELOW: Somehow not even nominated for an Oscar
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