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.