Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Collection: He Got Game Movie Review

Spike Lee’s He Got Game is a movie about America made by a man who loves basketball and the opportunity represented by this country. Stories of race relations have often driven Lee to make provocative films. Even when he’s not sharp, we see he has something interesting to say.

Lee is usually at his best when he keeps his focus on small communities in Brooklyn. He Got Game is set mostly in Coney Island, but the story has connections to the broader American community. The two main characters are diametrically opposed black men. Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, a man with undying love for his children, but also a pent up rage that led to the death of his wife, for which he is now serving time in state prison. Ray Allen is his son, Jesus (pronounced like Jesus of the Bible), who is the number one high school basketball prospect in the country.

The Governor offers Jake a one week pass to convince his son to sign a letter of intent to attend the fictional Big State, the Governor’s alma mater, to play basketball. The task is complicated by the estrangement between these two men. Jesus holds a lot of anger in his heart toward his father. He’s also peppered non-stop with questions and advice regarding his college decision. Uncle Bubba, his foster father for several years, wants a taste of the cars and cash being floated in front of his face. His classmates ask him daily where he’s going to school. His coach, a kind of surrogate father, wants a piece of him too. Even his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) encourages him to meet with an agent to discuss NBA prospects. Yes, there’s something in it for her too. Jake thinks he is free of corruption, but he also operates with selfish motivations. If Jesus signs with Big State, Jake gets a full pardon.

The journey here is neither Jake’s nor Jesus’s, but the relationship between them. Jake continues to exhibit some of those angry outbursts that got him in trouble in the first place. He has prayed for God’s forgiveness and this week is his chance to ask for Jesus’s too. There’s more than a little commentary on how America elevates sports icons to hero and even savior status. It’s not all that subtle what Lee intends to suggest about sports culture when he includes a montage of famous basketball faces including Michael Jordan, Bill Walton and several Division 1 college basketball coaches all extolling Jesus’s virtues both on and off the court, some even exclaiming, “praise Jesus!” And Jesus the movie character is almost as pure as we would like our saviors to be. He repeatedly rejects offers of money and gifts. His one fall from grace involves pleasures of the flesh, but can we really begrudge a teenager who falls to the temptation of two buxom and willing women?

This has been not only one of my favorite Spike Lee films since I saw it, but one of my favorites of any director. And I think I finally caught on to what it is that draws me in. This is Lee’s love letter to America. It’s subtly critical of the way young urban black men are used and enticed with riches only when they have something to offer big corporations in the future, but it’s still a film enamored of the idea that anyone can rise up in this country and become the greatest. What better way for Lee to illustrate that than with basketball, the great urban sport that he loves. He opens the film with slow motion footage of people of all colors playing basketball in various settings, using everything from elegantly pristine hoops to bottomed-out milk crates. He sets this opening to Aaron Copland’s “John Henry” and uses Copland’s music to score the film, occasionally throwing in songs by Public Enemy. The use of Copland’s music ties the Americana theme together. These are musical pieces that, owing to the open sound of the orchestra, are evocative of the western frontier and wide open spaces. For that reason, many film composers writing for Westerns have borrowed heavily from Copland. So his music being used for a father and son basketball story is perfectly fitting.

There’s a minor subplot involving a prostitute played by Milla Jovovich, who lives next door to the skuzzy hotel room where Jake stays. She gives Jake someone to save, since his own son hardly needs saving, but apart from that Lee doesn’t really flesh out her place in the story.

This is one of Washington’s great unsung performances. He plays Jake as a man concealing a lot of anger, ready to explode at any moment. And in NBA star Ray Allen, Spike Lee found that most rare of commodities – a professional athlete who can act. Allen goes head-to-head with Washington on the acting front. The sparring between them is as exciting to watch as the final one-on-one showdown on the court between them, when at long last, the pro athlete son gets to school the actor father for once.

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