He Got Game

Normally, I make it a rule never to go to basketball movies (especially if
they star basketball players) or those whose titles are in ebonics. But Spike
Lee is a talented director about whose work it is still possible to be hopeful,
in spite of a string of disappointments. He Got Game turns out to be the
latest in the string, a further descent into the sort of portentousness and
self-indulgence that he has been guilty of more or less continuously since the
more disciplined and effective Do the Right Thing a decade ago.
Here it is the wild, hyperbolical existence of the fan which is Spike Lee’s
starting point. There is a potential subject—something amusing as well as sad
—about grown people who invest all the happiness they have or hope to have in
the fortunes of a sports team or star, who put a playground game at the center
of their lives. But Lee looks at such people completely without irony or
detachment. He is, indeed, one of them himself.

He Got Game may conceivably appeal to you if you are also a basketball
fanatic (the very language we use to denominate the “fan” suggests ironic
ridicule); it can hardly conceivably do so if you are not. Denzel Washington
plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a parent like Earl Woods who believes in driving his
son, Jesus (Ray Allen), to exhaustion every day in the hope of making him a
basketball star. One day as he is pushing Jesus particularly hard, his wife,
Martha (Lonette McKee) tries to intervene to protect the boy, and he pushes her
away. She falls and hits her head on the kitchen cabinet and dies. Very
improbably, I would have thought, Jake is convicted of murder and sent to prison
for, oh, a very long time. His son refuses any more to acknowledge him as his

As the film opens it is five and a half years later, and Jake is shooting
hoops in the recreation yard at Attica. He gets a call from the Warden (Ned
Beatty) who is acting as an intermediary for the governor of the state, an
alumnus of “Big State” and a basketball fan. Jesus is by this time 18 and the
most heavily recruited high school senior in the country. The governor through
the warden puts it to Jake that if he can persuade Jesus to go to Big State, he
will get a reduced sentence. Jake agrees to try without mentioning the fact that
Jesus hates him and will have nothing to do with him. At least it means he gets
out of prison for a week. As he tastes the sweet air of freedom in his shabby,
cheap hotel, he murmurs: “Thank you, Jesus.”

Will he win back the love and trust of the truculent Jesus, who is surrounded
by crooks and con men and parasites seeking to take advantage of his youthful
naïveté? Will he find true love with the hooker with a heart of gold
(Milla Jovovich) who lives with her abusive pimp, Sweetness, in the next-door
hotel room? Will the governor keep his end of the bargain if Jesus eventually
signs with Big State? If you do not already know the answers to these questions
and are fond of basketball, Aaron Copland (don’t ask me) and the vicarious
thrill of seeing large-breasted and empty-headed co-eds willing to do
anything to get Tech U. to the Final Four, you may conceivably enjoy
this film. Otherwise not.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts