Archive for May 1, 1998

He Got Game

May 1, 1998

hegotgamestill1Flawed father figures are a recurring theme in Spike Lee’s work. Think of the pizzeria owner Sal and his two sons in Do the Right Thing, the uncomprehending dads in Jungle Fever and Get On the Bus, the paternal but deadly crack lord Rodney in Clockers, the musician struggling to support his family in the autobiographical Crooklyn. Lee has had a tempestuous relationship with his own father, Bill Lee, a musician who scored Spike’s early films; when Bill Lee got busted for heroin possession, he invoked his famous son’s name to the police to get out of trouble.

He Got Game, Lee’s new film and one of his finest, feels like a reconciliation of sorts. The story of a screw-up father and his superstar son, it’s perhaps Lee’s most personal film since Crooklyn. Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, who’s spent the last six years in Attica for murder. Jake is offered a reduced sentence if he can persuade his son Jesus (Ray Allen), a high-school hoop legend, to sign on with the governor’s preferred college basketball team. (Well, Jesus may get an education there too, but that’s considered beside the point.) The challenge is that Jesus loathes his father and won’t talk to him; he sees Jake as one more vulture who smells cash.

The hyperbole surrounding Jesus gets to be so intense it’s funny — though not for Jesus, whom Lee presents as a martyr for the ’90s. True to his name, Jesus is being tempted right and left, and his indecision about which college he’ll attend is his way of avoiding, if you will, a crucifixion — he won’t be nailed down. Movie directors as visible as Spike Lee has been may also feel crucified by the media, betrayed by false friends who come sniffing around for money (there’s a montage of beggars who sound like people Lee may have dealt with). Lee loves basketball, sees it as a graceful way out of the projects for many African-Americans, but he’s also all too familiar with the pitfalls of the sports culture — you’ll recall him in the great documentary Hoop Dreams advising athletes to use their heads.

As a filmmaker, Lee only gets better. The great young cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, with whom Lee has worked since Clockers, uses a saturated and gritty palette to give the images a hyper-realistic texture. Lee doesn’t push as hard for effects now; he’s mellowed — Malcolm X marked the beginning of a more mature and measured style — and He Got Game is a nimble and engaging work, with important scenes that feel casual and tossed-off (that’s a big compliment). He has also, thank God, dropped his curious habits of having people walk down a street as if they were being pulled along on wheels, and shooting entire scenes through a distorting lens (he uses that effect in just two well-chosen shots here).

Casting the nonactor Ray Allen, a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, was a major risk that generally pays off. Allen is natural and low-key, if sometimes a little too subdued in emotional scenes. His achievement is that he holds his own with Denzel Washington, who should work more often with Lee; with other directors, he can be a tad stiff and inexpressive, as if refusing to yield to the poor movies (like Virtuosity and Fallen) he finds himself in. Lee, however, knows how to deglamorize Washington, giving him the freedom to play noble failures like Jake, with his bad ‘fro and his way of making grilled-cheese sandwiches with an iron. Washington’s Jake is palpably sorrowful; even his pride in his son is tempered with regret.

He Got Game climaxes with Spike Lee’s version of the Big Game in sports movies: Jake and Jesus face off on the court, playing for Jake’s future. Will Jesus do the right thing? In the concluding scenes, Lee achieves his reconciliation in an indirect way — he tells us that even screw-up fathers can teach their sons by being negative role models, examples of what not to do. It’s not much, but it’s something. The final sequence (which I won’t reveal) isn’t meant to be taken literally; Lee is saying that the ball is in Jesus’ court, and that it’s up to him to be the man his father couldn’t be. In real life, Lee isn’t only a disappointed son now; he’s also a father himself, and the movie may be his acknowledgment that fatherhood is never easy.