"White Men Can't Jump"

Ron Shelton's comedy about wisecracking, tough-talking basketball rivals opens up more racial dialogue than any message movie.

By Michael Sragow
Published August 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"White Men Can't Jump"
Directed by Ron Shelton
Starring Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez
20th Century Fox Home Video; widescreen
Extras: An additional scene

From the title on down, this fabulously funky and inventive street film, about two hoop-shooting scam artists working pickup games in Los Angeles, does more to open up racial dialogue than any message movie -- even if the races here mainly just "talk shit" to each other.

Wesley Snipes is Sidney Poitier on amphetamines as the self-styled "greatest" of the back-dominated courts. He sees a potential gold mine in Woody Harrelson, a white man who can do anything except jump -- and who just might be able to learn that, too. Snipes is intelligence in motion, turning his character's self-promotion into poetry. Harrelson is savvy and surprising, and his relationship with Rosie Perez vents writer-director Ron Shelton's fascination for the separate-but-equal mindscapes of men and women.

It's fitting that Perez's character, a hard-drinking, jive-talking gal, is obsessed with being on "Jeopardy!" Street games, quiz shows -- they're all part of the American urban dream of scoring high, winning big, settling debts and moving to a better neighborhood. Complete with discourses on the music of Jimi Hendrix and a diverse array of "Jeopardy!" categories, the film is an implausible yet persuasive mixture of inspiration, gutter lyricism and effrontery. On playgrounds and in cheap rooms and motels, the characters work out their tensions through taunts and jeers and wisecracks, as well as dazzling court action.

The main attraction of the DVD is an extra scene that occurs right after Harrelson and Snipes win a two-on-two tournament. The teasing that punctuates the play on the court segues into haggling about trophies and payment. The guy who hands our heroes the check tries and fails to pull off a soul-brother hand tap. The point of the scene (and the movie) is that free-style American democracy demands negotiation and a show of understanding. Ultimately, Harrelson and Snipes get that -- so for them, anything is possible.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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