Published May 1, 1998
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 father.
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.