Sports movies are a hard genre to work with, especially if you don’t want to make a comedy or a family film - categories which most sports movies fall into. But, every once in a long while there comes a sports film that is neither, and that really hits home. The one that I remember most is Field of Dreams. I haven’t seen a good sports film in a long time.
I’m certain that had He Got Game been done by any other writer/director it would have failed, but in the hands of Spike Lee, He Got Game is one of the best films of 1998 and will probably make my top 10 list.
Who’s got game? A kid named Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), who’s a graduating senior at the real-life Lincoln high school on Coney Island. Jesus is so good at basketball that every college wants him and every NBA team wants him. What is Jesus going to do?
Someone else has game also, though. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is the father of Jesus. He’s currently serving time in a prison with 15 years to go. What landed Jake in prison? He killed his wife. With this act, he split his whole family apart - turning Jesus into an embittered young man who has taught himself to believe that he has no father. With a week to go before Jesus needs to decide about going to college or going pro, the governor has a proposal for Jake. He will try to reduce Jake’s sentence and help him get early parole if Jake will convince Jesus to go to the governor’s alma mater, Big State.
What Spike Lee does with He Got Game is amazing. He slowly unravels a story which on the surface looks and feels like a run-of-the-mill sports film. But underneath, he starts to reveal the pressure and events that happen around a star basketball player ready to make “the most important decision of his life.” Lee starts showing us that from sex, to money, to new cars, the people around Jesus will try anything to convince him to do what they want. And with this, they also want a piece of what Jesus will be making.
He Got Game relies directly on the relationship between the father and son. Onscreen this relationship lives, and lives only because of a brilliant performance by Denzel Washington. Washington puts his all onscreen and it shows. This time around, Washington is not playing an egghead - as in Crimson Tide - or an everyday man - like in the forgettable but enjoyable Fallen. No, this time he plays a poor man with a lot of failings, including the killing of his wife. I walked in thinking that Washington would play Jake as a hard-nosed embittered man, but my hunch turned out all wrong. The only embittered one was Jesus. Washington plays Jake as a guy who regrets most of the things that he has done in his life.
The weak link in all of this is the stiff performance by Ray Allen. Although Lee coerces Allen into a decent performance, it’s not enough to take He Got Game from a great film to an all-time great film. It is a good start for Allen, though, and I wish him well in his further acting jobs.
Spike Lee has always been a favourite writer and director of mine. His Do The Right Thing is one of my favourite films (and for those of you who don’t know me personally, my nickname is Mookie, which is the name of Lee’s character in Do The Right Thing.) With He Got Game, Lee has one-upped himself and this is now my favourite Spike Lee film. Lee has a particular style in the way that he shoots his films and this all shows in a wonderful opening montage of people playing basketball across America. This is one of the best openings I’ve ever experienced and shows the love of basketball that Lee has.
What’s interesting to note is that although He Got Game is about basketball, there are no extended sequences of basketball in the movie. We only see a one-on-one game between Jake and Jesus. We get some flashes of basketball games, but the focus is never on the sport - Spike Lee uses it to explore the things that go around the game.
Worth mentioning is the music by Aaron Copland, which is downright American. Copland’s music along with Lee’s imagery is wonderous.
Next to Ray Allen, there are two smaller weak links in He Got Game. One is a sub-plot about a prostitute (Milla Jovovich) and Jake. And the other is the awkward symbolic ending, which irked me the most.
He Got Game is a Don’t Miss movie that never fails to entertain. This film is powerful, moving, and all the while it holds our attention with a well-written relationship between a father and a son.