In the production notes for Spike Lee's new movie, He Got Game, the filmmaker is quoted as saying, "I don't think I've ever done a film that is just about one thing...." That's true: usually he's able to cram in two or three things. In his new He Got Game, for example, there are two points he wants to get across: You can't be a man until you forgive your father for the harm he's done you, and talented young basketball players with big NBA prospects can't trust anyone.
You may have had your hopes raised that, by choosing basketball as his subject matter here, Lee might have been able to transcend his usual clunky, message-laden storytelling and finally engage with something that he has genuine affection for, something truly felt. But He Got Game is not a movie about basketball; it's about how everyone has a price, how everyone at heart is a whore, including your father. In the end, even the forgive-your-father thing comes down to choosing which whore you like better. It's a bleak worldview, and Lee doesn't portray it artfully or entertainingly.
The movie begins with slow-motion, scenic shots of various people, on farmland and in cities, everywhere across this great nation of ours, practicing their outside shot, backed by Aaron Copland's symphonic, pastoral music. It's like one of those coffee-table photography books: A Day in the Life of Basketball. (And something much different from the fast, improvisational, joyous, jazzy teamwork of the game I love.) Lee uses Copland's music for the entire movie, only switching to Public Enemy songs when Urban Grit is required.
After the pretty intro, Lee starts in with the preaching. Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks) is the best high school senior basketball player in the country ever. He's known as "Jesus of Coney Island," where he lives in the projects with his younger sister, Mary, whom he's raising on his own. (Subtlety is a quality unknown to Spike Lee.) He has one week before the NCAA deadline to sign a letter of intent indicating which college he'll play for. His father, Jake (Denzel Washington), is in prison; six years before, after a sadistic workout pitting father against son, Jake became so enraged that he accidentally killed his wife, Jesus' mother, when she tried to separate the two. But then Jake is granted an off-the-books "furlough"--the governor wants him to use his parental influence to get Jesus to attend "Big State," the governor's alma mater. If Jake succeeds, he'll get time knocked off his sentence.
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Everybody wants a piece of Jesus, and they'll do anything to get it. Jesus' friends, coach, uncle, and girlfriend have all accepted money from somebody or other who wants them to use their influence with the player. This universal rot could probably have been illustrated in 10 or 15 minutes, but Lee plays through the scenario again and again. There's only his sainted mother (played by the wasted Lonette McKee, appearing in flashback) to remind him of the importance of getting a good education, to keep him on the straight and true. This Jesus has about 572 stations of the cross.
Lee hammers at everything: A hood called Big Time Willie explains in excruciating detail all of the temptations coming Jesus' way, and Lee provides a montage of drug use, street violence, and whorey women. Even what's supposed to be the climactic scene between father and son is undercut by Lee's ineptness. Jake explains to Jesus that he named him after basketball legend Earl Monroe, whom black fans called "Jesus" and whom the white press called "Black Jesus." It's the one scene in the movie where a character's (and Lee's) love of the game and its players shows through. Washington ends it by honestly and directly telling Jesus the truth about his furlough, and asks him to sign the letter of intent with Big State, but he doesn't demand it of him. We think Jake has come clean. But then Lee later confuses everything by having the father attempt to team up with Jesus' traitorous girlfriend.
Lee's treatment of the basketball player Ray Allen is even more troubling. Allen is not an actor and should not have been asked to be one. Lee wanted an authentic athlete to make the basketball scenes credible, which is fine, except that there ain't that much basketball in this movie. Lee hires Allen because of what he can do, and then mostly has him do what he can't do. Lee does what he finds reprehensible in all of his other characters--he exploits a talented athlete for his own gain. He crucifies his Jesus on the cross of his flimsy ideas.
He Got Game.
Directed and written by Spike Lee. Starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington. Opens Friday.