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Spike Lee on top of his "Game'

The young man's name is Jesus, pronounced like the savior. As you might expect, that's a heavy cross to bear. Especially when you're 6 feet 5 and rated as the top prep basketball prospect in the nation, and everybody wants a piece of the action.

Jesus Shuttlesworth is a fictional character, but Spike Lee has witnessed similar stories from courtside for years. The dazzle of youthful sports celebrity and the darkness behind it inspired Lee to make He Got Game, a movie that doesn't make all the right moves but gets the job done.

He Got Game is really no more about basketball than Field of Dreams is purely a baseball movie. Both films use their respective sports as a framework for a deeper confrontation between an estranged father and son who once bonded with a ball. Yet, there is nothing gooey or idyllic about Lee's movie. This isn't heaven or Iowa, it's the Coney Island housing projects. Sports aren't recreation, they're a way out.

He Got Game illustrates this desperation with considerable artistry and two aching people who need the game to save them. Jesus, played to awkward perfection by NBA star Ray Allen, is the obvious hero, good-looking and blessed with man-sized talent on the court and saddled with family responsibilities. Out of bounds, he's still a child of sorts, making the temptations even sadder. In the course of the film, he'll be seduced by an army of hangers-on, and Lee does solid work portraying truths that we've heard before.

The other person grasping for new hope is Jesus' father, Jake Shuttlesworth. Jake is serving time in Attica prison for a crime that makes his chance at reconciliation with his son even tougher. The governor is an alumni of generic Big State, and if Jake can persuade Jesus to sign a letter of intent with the governor's alma mater, some strings may be pulled.

It's fascinating to watch a handsome, charismatic actor like Denzel Washington immerse himself in this uneducated loser who clings to his basketball and family pasts. Jake is flawed and cunning, keeping us guessing about his true feelings until his last rebellious act. This is the best role Washington has accepted since Lee's Malcolm X, and his accomplishment here is that film's equal. The father-son dynamic is the best thing He Got Game has going for it.

An ingenious surprise arises when we discover that Jesus wasn't named for Christ, but for another "Jesus" with closer ties to the man Jake used to be, rather than the convict he became. It's merely another symptom of the young man's fame that causes the hype to skirt blasphemy. Yet, Lee also uses the player's name to invoke plenty of comparisons, some more heavy-handed than others. When Jake is released from Attica, he bows his head and says, "Thank you, Jesus," and we're not really certain which one he means. Clearly, his son is a martyr for all those recruitment sins that passed before him.

He Got Game begins with a reminder that Jesus Shuttlesworth isn't the only hoop dreamer. The first player on display is a white kid in the wide-open spaces, practicing a world away from Coney Island. We see basketball players of both genders and all colors, in driveways and church parking lots, rural and urban. All of them "got game," court slang for a particularly gifted player, and few will advance beyond high school. Lee works with a more inclusive attitude than usual here.

Lee's brilliant tactic for emotional crescendos is using Aaron Copland's majestic Americana melodies to underscore the action. Whatever your radio station choice may be, there are few pieces of music that can stir your soul like Fanfare for the Common Man, or illustrate tragic, rambunctious heroism better than Billy the Kid. Public Enemy contributes rap music that enriches the street vibe (and boosts CD sales potential), but Lee's choice of Copland makes He Got Game and its two restless African-American lives at center stage resonate for all.

Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed creates some indelible images that illustrate the beauty of the game, often in circumstances that aren't very pretty. A slow-motion shot sailing toward the basket hypnotizes us with the ball's rotation, until it passes a blurred prison guard standing in the background and gives us a striking point of reference. The angle of an easy layup blends into the motion of a train heading out of the 'hood, forming a perfect symbol of Jesus' situation.

The game plan breaks down a bit in the second half, when Lee gets diverted by all of the problems this story unearths. It's no coincidence that Washington's galvanizing performance is on the bench while He Got Game tracks Jesus' path through shifty agents, bawdy campus visitations and his scheming girlfriend, Lala (Rosario Dawson). Some scenes feel out of place; we know that Lala has a sexual hold on Jesus, so a late tryst on a ferris wheel seems gratuitous. We know the campus enticements, so the Tech U. visitation scenes, including John Turturro as a gung-ho coach, are needlessly long.

What's missing is the filmmaker's usual agenda for justice. Lee may love the game so much and has so many buddies there that he doesn't want to risk offending the basketball gods. Blue Chips and even the football drama The Program mapped out this territory before. Lee only tells us again how wicked the system and sycophants have become for gifted people like Jesus.

However, years of fan and commercial involvement with college and pro basketball provide Lee with more insight than any director who hasn't played the game could possess. Lee obviously made some impressive connections along the way, which enhances the authenticity here with cameos by a roster of famous coaches, players and sportscasters who praise Jesus for his skills. They remind us that this is a sports movie, but we prefer Jake's head games.


He Got Game

Grade: B+

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Hill Harper, Milla Jovovich, Rosario Dawson, Ned Beatty

Screenplay: Spike Lee

Rating: R; profanity, sexual situations, nudity, violence

Running time: 135 min.