HE GOT GAME

R
Reviews

It's too bad Spike Lee's sensitive portrayals of black men come at the expense of black and white women, that in the subtext of every Lee film lies a very definite fear of the feminine, of the exploitation of men by women. In He Got Game, Lee takes on the world of professional basketball and the plight of Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), the number-one high-school player in the U.S., but the film's sexist language, gratuitous female nudity, and its stereotypical and offensive portrayals of women--especially of Jesus' girlfriend--nearly destroy its effectiveness in revealing the manipulation of young athletes.

When the film opens, Jesus is one week away from having to decide whether he's going to sign with the NBA or go to college. NBA managers try to bribe Jesus with Rolexes and cars, and colleges try to lure him with sexual favors from white women. Although Lee's portrayals of these bribes are not inaccurate, they're exaggerated somewhat; the amount of screen time devoted to Jesus' sexual encounter at Tech U, and his revolting discussions with their chaperone about the pros and cons of dating white women--they do your laundry--as opposed to black women--they make you work too hard--cheapen an otherwise well-deserved indictment of the handling of young athletes by colleges and professional sports organizations.

Lee's screenplay is uneven, and the dialogue is frequently clichƒd, but at the heart of the film is Denzel Washington's sensitive portrayal of Jake, Jesus' father, who's a prisoner at Attica State for the murder of his wife Martha (Lonette McKee). Jake is let out of prison for a week to convince his son to attend Big State, the governor's alma mater; in return, the warden has promised Jake that the governor will reconsider his 15-year sentence. Washington's charismatic combination of masculine strength and underlying vulnerability is what makes Jake, despite the screenplay's shortcomings, a memorable character. Jake's regrets--the shove that accidently sent his wife to her death, the violence with which he pushed Jesus to become an athlete, and the effect of his incarceration on his son and his young daughter Mary (Zelda Harris)--are what give the film life and emotional depth.

Milwaukee Bucks player Ray Allen seems to draw strength from Washington--Allen gives a credible performance for a non-professional with eight weeks' coaching, but in the scenes he shares with Washington, he's even better. Despite Lee's inept rendering of the major female characters, Rosario Dawson turns in a good performance as Lala, Jesus' girlfriend, as does Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) as the prostitute in a winding and unnecessary subplot involving Jake. Hill Harper (the filmmaker in Get on the Bus) is excellent as Booger, Jesus' cousin.

Lee decided to use a professional athlete in the role of Jesus so that the basketball playing would seem real, and it was an excellent decision. (Washington, who played briefly in college, also shoots his own baskets.) It allowed Lee and d.p. Malik Hassan Sayeed the freedom to shoot the game the way it should be shot. This, combined with Lee's talent for location shooting, gives He Got Game just the right touch of gritty reality. However, the film falters off the court, especially in the scenes involving Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn), guardian to Jesus and Mary; Nunn's performance just isn't believable, partly because his character's dialogue is so poorly written. Other sequences suffer from excess--they're just interminable, especially the ones at Tech U, and at the sports agent's house.

He Got Game is Jerry Maguire from the black perspective--Lee's sports agent is a slimy, fast-talking salesman who doesn't care what team Jesus ends up on. Jesus doesn't shout 'Show me the money' because it would be a sell-out to the forces that seek to exploit him. Jesus is black and the exploiters are white or they're women--the lone exception being Uncle Bubba--and much of the movie is spent detailing the nature of their exploitation. It's the great flaw of the screenplay, and what creates an emotional distance from the main character.

You always feel the finger of blame in Lee's films. Blame for the black diaspora or for the plight of black men is important, but not in a narrative film which relies on the audience's identification with the protagonist. There isn't enough of Jesus' interior life in He Got Game for you to feel that empathy, but there are many layers of blame for his position, from the plight of black men like his father in a culture dominated by whites--which leads to the kind of violence that characterizes their relationship--to the lure of a capitalist society which promises great wealth to young black athletes while continuing to practice racism in social and political arenas. The placement of blame makes you more conscious of Spike Lee's worldview than of Jesus' struggle to become a man. In the end, that's why He Got Game doesn't have the impact it should have on all of us, regardless of our color or our interest in basketball. While Washington and Allen provide some memorable moments, He Got Game often feels more like a lecture than a narrative film.

--Maria Garcia