In Your Face, Spike

It was just a matter of time until hoops junkie and courtside loudmouth Spike Lee got around to making a basketball picture. It's called He Got Game, and it means to be, in part, Lee's antidote to his bluntly stated claim that "most sports movies suck." It takes a talent as large as his own, Lee clearly believes, to get past the weary cliches that have been banging around filmed arenas and playing fields for decades and strike at the heart of the matter.

So here it is, the Gospel According to St. Spike:
Blue-chip high-school basketball prospects--especially black blue-chippers from the projects--have become commodities who are ruthlessly manipulated and exploited by self-serving coaches, money-grubbing sports agents, the media, gold-digging girlfriends and members of their own families. Most of the exploiters are white, of course, and of those, the majority appear to be shady Italian-Americans from Brooklyn with stacks of ill-gotten cash in their desks. White women, it says here, are mostly whores. And the governor of New York is such a corrupt pig that he would do anything, illegal or illicit, to fulfill his own basketball dreams.

The only pure, unsullied forces left in the world, Lee tells us, are a father's love for his son and the son's stainless love for the game.

Never mind that Lee gives a blinkered fan's endorsement to one-in-a-million big-league fantasies, unmitigated by an artist's skepticism about their real effects. He also prostrates himself before celebrity sports culture.

It should come as no surprise that this is the first Spike Lee movie since 1991's Jungle Fever that the director has written without help from a collaborator. The weakest element of Lee's game--the nonexistent element, some would say--has always been screenplay. Without propping up and reining in from a co-writer (novelist Richard Price on Clockers; Arnold Perl, by way of biographer Alex Haley, on Malcolm X) his narratives often self-destruct, his characters degenerate into caricature, his self-indulgences run amok.

Ask yourself now. Are we to take seriously the notion that the most nubile female students on college campuses exist mainly to seduce prospective freshman athletes on recruiting visits? With a wink, Lee puts it just that way. Are we to believe that NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal and coaches like John Thompson, Lute Olson and Rick Pitino go on the boob tube to sing the praises of high-school ballplayers? In Spikeland, they do--so that the director can parade his big-name hoop friends past the camera. Are we to think that virtually every living soul in a blue-chipper's orbit, including his double-dealing high-school coach, is driven to feed off him? In this tale of victimhood, that's the way things happen.

To be fair, there's some gorgeous basketball on display here, thanks in large part to the grace of Milwaukee Bucks guard-turned-movie-actor Ray Allen, who's been cast as the nation's No. 1 prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth of Coney Island, New York. Neighborhood icon, Sports Illustrated cover boy, incorruptible hero, Jesus has unlimited talent. What he doesn't have, apparently, is a student's routine. Lee neglects to show us a single schoolbook, pencil or classroom. Make of that what you will.

Allen is miscast (more on that later), but he's not a bad actor: At Lee's urging, he took drama lessons last summer and shows a nice, easy style before the camera. It doesn't hurt that his co-star is the gifted Denzel Washington, who's been cast as Jake Shuttlesworth, Jesus's estranged father, who pushed him toward stardom. But Washington is mired in a ridiculous plot device: Jake's a convict who's released from Attica for one week so that he can try to convince his son to sign a letter of intent to the governor's alma mater. If successful, he's told, he'll get a sentence reduction. Come on, now.

In his eagerness to get in our faces, Lee simply doesn't know when to stop.
Jake's crime, the movie tells us, is "murder" (actually, it's manslaughter), because six years earlier he accidentally killed his wife, Jesus's beloved mother, in their kitchen. Aside from being in the joint, though, he displays no apparent ill effects or regrets as the result of this mishap--until Lee has him traipse off to the cemetery and throw himself on his dead wife's tombstone.

Meanwhile, when he's not busy trying to win back his resentful son, good old Jake finds time to fall by the shoe store and star in what amounts to a commercial for Nike Air Jordans (Spike Lee's real-life client, of course) and to bed down a slatternly white hooker (Milla Jovovich) holed up in the room next door at his fleabag hotel on the boardwalk.

Evidently, that's still not laying it on thick enough. Jake's nasty chaperones from the penitentiary (Joseph Lyle Taylor and ex-footballer Jim Brown) luxuriate downtown at the Marriott while he uses a steam iron to toast cheese sandwiches in his Brooklyn hovel. Jesus's Puerto Rican girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) is scamming the boy for a payoff. His guardian, good old Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn), is climbing on the gravy train. Even Jesus's beloved little sister, Mary (Zelda Harris), has a couple of temptations.

Looking for more comic-strip exaggeration? How about this? Not only is Allen so mature at 22 as to be completely unbelievable as an 18-year-old, his Lincoln High "teammates" in He Got Game are also full-grown NBA players--Indiana's Travis Best, Toronto's John Wallace, Boston's Walter McCarty, etc. Where Lee might have recaptured the poignancy of Steve James's landmark 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams--the poignancy of teenagers facing hard choices as they verge into manhood--he's chosen grownups to play-act at youth, and the emotion of the moment is lost.

This is one of many miscalculations. Presumably, He Got Game also means to address the issue of fathers and sons and how they heal their old wounds. But Lee is so busy showing off the evils of rapacious agents (Al Palagonia), venal coaches (John Turturro) and neighborhood hustlers (Roger Guenveur Smith) that the relationship between Jake and Jesus gets lost in the shuffle. The resolution of this crucial conflict is tacked on like an afterthought after 131 minutes of muddling.

So Spike Lee thinks sports movies suck? Too bad he hasn't done something about it.

He Got Game.
Written and directed by Spike Lee. With Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson, Zelda Harris and Jim Brown.


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