“He Got Game”

Spike Lee's "He Got Game" is a sentimental but affecting look at how a father regained his long-lost son -- through basketball.

Topics: Basketball, Paul Shirley, Academia, College, Movies,

Spike Lee makes much better movies about black people than he does about black and white people. His vision of black-white relations in “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Jungle Fever” is a confused welter in which PC pessimism and received racial grievances are punctuated by moments of independent thinking. His muddled racial litany is depressingly familiar: He takes a stacked-deck plot in which racist, hypocritical, wimpy or otherwise lame white people befoul the lives of the black protagonists, throws in some equally lame black characters and one or two decent but peripheral white ones, punches things up with one or two audacious set-pieces of cinematic bang-bang, and ties the whole ungainly thing together with mawkishly sentimental music. The hip, loose, comedic elements in his work clash incongruously with its dogmatism.

Lee’s defenders insist that the confusion in his work is an honest reflection of the complex reality of being black in white America. And for all their irritating, soap-box-y flaws, Lee’s films do give sometimes-powerful voice to subjects that are rarely examined in our racially decorous cinema. But the “reflection” justification is too easy. In the end, the confusion is Lee’s own: His heterodox impulses are constantly stifled by demagoguery and easy racial pessimism. Lee can be one of our hipper and more irreverent commentators, but just when he’s about to cut the agit-prop, he seems to look over his shoulder at an invisible gallery of race men, the guardians of Black Authenticity, and does the Right Thing again. It’s like watching Preston Sturges change before your eyes into Al Sharpton.

Fortunately, Lee’s new film isn’t about race relations, at least not primarily — it’s about fathers and sons. Awkward and often downright silly, “He Got Game” is nonetheless heartfelt, a moving portrayal of a man who finds his long-lost son through faith, hope and basketball. Freed of the burden of carrying The Black Viewpoint on his shoulders, Lee turns to one of the oldest human stories: The Prodigal Son. “He Got Game” is sentimental and clumsy, with too many plot implausibilities to count and the usual cardboard characters popping up to recite their Snidely Whiplash lines. But its heart, carried by a stately, nuanced and profoundly manly performance by Denzel Washington, is simple and affecting.



“He Got Game” (the expression means “he can play”) does for basketball what Roger Angell, Roger Kuhn and Donald Hall did for baseball: It elevates it to a plane where its sweaty disciplines — the crossover dribble, the double fake followed by the 17-foot jumper, the slicing, vaunting reverse jam — acquire a kind of sanctity, as if lit from within. They become a legacy, a pure and unchanging thing in a corrupt world. If this sounds impossibly corny, it is — but Lee pulls it off surprisingly well. And Lee the sentimentalist is vastly preferable to Lee the didact.

The story is pretty ridiculous, but most of its implausibility doesn’t matter that much. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is a prisoner serving a long sentence in Attica. When the film opens, he is called off the outdoor basketball court to see the warden. It seems that Jake’s son, Jesus (Ray Allen), is the leading high-school basketball prospect in the country, and one of the colleges he is considering attending is the governor’s alma mater, Big State. A fanatical hoops fan, the governor desperately wants Jesus to go to Big State and, through the warden, offers Jake a deal: If he can convince his son to sign a letter of intent with Big State, the governor will substantially shorten Jake’s sentence. Jake is secretly released and sent to a sleazy hotel in Brooklyn’s Coney Island accompanied by two guards who have orders to kill him if he tries to escape. He has one week to perform his mission.

This is a cartoon, but you can pretty much suspend your disbelief. Another glaring implausibility, however, is somewhat harder to ignore. Jake is serving hard time for killing his wife, Jesus’ mother — which is why Jesus hates him, an estrangement on which the entire reconciliation plot depends. But the “crime” for which Jake has been convicted on what is clearly at least a second-degree murder rap was, at most, involuntary manslaughter. In flashback scenes, Jake is only sketchily portrayed, but he seems to be a loving husband and good father to Jesus and his sister; his only fault is pushing his son too hard on the basketball court. One day, after he has taunted the 12-year-old Jesus especially hard, trying to teach him not to let his temper affect his game, Jesus snaps, throws the ball over the fence and storms off. Back at home, a bitter argument ensues. When Jake’s wife tries to intervene, he shoves her away, she hits her head and dies. For this, he gets something like 15 or 20 years in Attica. Uh-huh.

Still, the film’s emotional crux — Jesus’ complete estrangement from Jake — is theoretically plausible, although one wonders whether a 12-year-old raised by a man as essentially decent as Jake would really reject him so completely (Jesus has not spoken to Jake since his incarceration and does not consider him his father) for what was nothing but a tragic accident. One might also think that Jesus would be scarred by this emotional holocaust, that he would be a boiling cauldron of confusion, love, hate and anguish. But Jesus, as played by the solid but one-dimensional Allen (not an actor, but a player for the Milwaukee Bucks), is just a good, simple-hearted kid, taking care of his kid sister and trying to make the right decision about college while beset by vultures on every side. As usual, Lee doesn’t let psychological depth get in the way of his simple parable.

The Jesus-and-the-vultures subplot is the “social message” part of “He Got Game.” That message is an overblown and often hilarious version of the moral familiar from films like “Hoop Dreams”: When you’re the No. 1 prospect in the country, everybody wants a piece of your action and nobody is looking out for your best interests. In true Spike Lee fashion, the betrayal of Jesus is of an epic, Cecil B. DeMille-like scope. His coach, viscous with 40-weight sincerity, tries to slip him $10,000 in exchange for information about his intentions (it’s hard to figure out what the coach is getting out of the deal, but something shady is clearly going down) after piously declaiming that he’s always thought of Jesus as a son. His crass uncle who raised him is sure that Jesus is holding out on him and demands to “wet his beak” in the fabulous loot. (“Don’t you know ‘The Godfather’?” he asks Jesus.) Even his girlfriend stabs him in the back, setting up a meeting between Jesus and a sleazy white agent (the tic is a dead giveaway) who dangles $230,000 Lamborghinis and $30,000 platinum Rolexes in his face. In case we miss the point, various characters declaim such public-service-announcement sentiments as “Education comes first” and “Use basketball as a tool.”

But Jesus’ travails are a more or less amusing sideshow: The main event is the surreal, oddly moving odyssey (the word has some resonance here) of Jake. You wouldn’t think that Washington, one of the most physically beautiful actors of his generation, could possibly look ravaged, but he does. Washington evinces not just his customary forceful intelligence but something craggy, beat-up and vaguely dark. It’s a restrained, ambiguous performance that makes one wish that Lee had given Jake even more of a back story, given Washington more room to explore his character’s flaws. (Lee wants to have it both ways with Jake a little too much. He sanitizes him; he should have made him a little bit darker.) The muscular stoicism of Washington’s performance communicates the enormity of his loss and his love far stronger than a more demonstrative one would have. The scene in which Washington kisses the tombstone of his wife, his lips touching it at first tentatively, then insistently, before he drops his head and embraces the cold stone with all of the longing of his shattered life, is as moving as any work he’s done.

So big is Washington’s presence that he makes even a scene that should be hackneyed memorable. His encounter with a hooker who lives next door to him in his sordid hotel is clichid in every way, but it feels like something real, and the redemption that it seems to offer no joke.

The film’s climax is mythic to the point of absurdity — but the advantage of Lee’s broad strokes and moralizing instincts is that they prepare the ground for such Loaded With Significance audacities. Jake, his time up, makes Jesus an offer: He’ll play him one-on-one for all the marbles. If Jake wins, Jesus has to sign with Big State and get his father out of jail; if Jesus wins, he can make his own decision. The game is not just a contest, it is a rite of passage, a test of manhood, of childhood and fatherhood. If the son wins, he proves that his father taught him well. The colder the son is, the more efficiently he kills his father, the more he justifies him. The game is a theater of heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming ironies.

The father takes his son to school in the low post. “That’s your last basket,” says Jesus. The father hits two 17-foot J’s. “Luck,” says Jesus. The trash talk flows on as the two big men, the son bigger and faster and better than the father, battle in deadly earnest, in hate and love. Jake inevitably tires, Jesus inevitably pulls ahead, but it’s impossible not to see Jake in Jesus, impossible not to feel the pathos of the passing of the torch, impossible not to be touched by the father still teaching his son, testing him, giving him a target to aim at, forever. It is a great set piece, and if the whole movie is really just preparation for this one moment, it’s worth it. Even the totally over-the-top coup de thibtre with which Lee ends the movie — I won’t give it away; suffice it to say that a basketball violates the laws of physics — is affecting. “He Got Game” is a little too sappy to be a great movie, but it puts the ball in the hole.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>