For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Next up is He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington, Milla Jovovich, Rosario Dawson, Hill Harper, and an impossibly young Ray Allen.
“The problem with sports movies is twofold,” Spike Lee writes in his “basketball memoir,” The Best Seat in the House. “The first difficulty is the story, the hold of the narrative; the second has to do with the re-creation of the sport, as it relates to scale.”
Lee wrote that before the release of his own basketball movie, 1998’s He Got Game. He sort of follows his own advice. Lee has the basketball scenes down—having pros (Travis Best, John Wallace) play fictional high school players will do that. What’s confounding is Lee lacks the same confidence in the story, one that would seem natural for the lifelong Knicks fan and former Reggie Miller irritant to tell.
It’s preposterous that a time existed when Ray Allen was baby-faced and drove to the hoop with fluidity and fearlessness. But here he is starring as Coney Island’s Jesus Shuttlesworth, the top high school basketball player in America. With a week remaining until signing day, the high school senior has not decided what lucky school will have him for four years—or until his NBA Draft stock peaks.
The pressure is preposterous. Jesus’s father, Jake (Denzel Washington), has been released from Attica to have Jesus sign with the governor’s alma mater. He has a week, which isn’t much time considering that a) Jake taught Jesus the game via late-night practice sessions and degrading one-one-one contests that would make Pat Riley nod in agreement; b) Jake has been in prison for six years; and c) Jake killed Jesus’s mother (Lonette McKee) in a fit of rage—in front of the poor kid.
When Jake arrives, Jesus is incensed, which doesn’t stray far from his typical mood. Even without the dead mom and the incarcerated dad, this is a moody kid. He has his whole life ahead of him, one overflowing with unimaginable delights, but because he lives in Coney Island—home of Nathan’s and the walking dead—he can’t enjoy it. Everyone who’s close to him sees a lottery ticket. The only time Jesus appears at ease is on the court, where he can control everything. Otherwise, his talent makes him a man without a country.
Now Jesus is seeing the man who exiled him. A macho character study is right there for the taking, only Lee seems reluctant to delve into the game’s emotional core. It’s a bit jarring since Lee, it could be argued, is as associated with being a Knicks fan as he is with his filmmaking. A movie that he makes about basketball should feel personal. He Got Game does—about 70 percent of the time.
Lee, who wrote the script, inexplicably saddles Jake with another project: a woeful, pretty prostitute, Dakota (Milla Jovoivich), who lives next door to Jake’s temporary digs. The subplot drags like Kareem on the Showtime break. Jovovich can’t save herself from Lee framing her character as a stereotype—she introduces herself to Jake with a list of failures from the cinematic prostitute checklist. Lee dares us to ignore this character, shooting Dakota’s squalid apartment in harsh neon red. Everything chokes on the cartoonish vibes, including Jake’s interactions with Jesus. (Is Jake interested in saving a prostitute he barely knows or his own son?) Lee is incapable of playing to conventions. That makes him a wonderful director, but also a maddening one. Consider the third-act sequence where Jesus heads for a last-minute college visit. He’s hosted by a Kangol-wearing Rick Fox, who later escorts him to a three-way with porn stars Jill Kelly and Chasey Lain, who do not look like any college students in any college in any world—real or mythical. It’s one of those curveballs Lee loves to throw to goose the narrative—like odd camera movements, quick flashbacks within existing scenes, frank dialogue—but it disconnects us from Jesus’s reality.
A father and son and the mutual love that defined (and imprisoned) them gets stymied by Lee’s reluctance to engage in straight-ahead intimacy. He has the emotional components. He certainly has the talent. Washington is an actor of smoldering intensity who lets his scene partners breathe, including Allen. Allen must act against Washington, the late Bill Nunn and Rosario Dawson—three wonderful actors. It says something that my wife, about halfway through the movie, asked what character Allen played. He doesn’t stick out, an amazing accomplishment for a novice summoned to run with the pros—including a two-time Oscar winner.
What Lee does very well is elicit empathy for the young men in Jesus’s sneakers, stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and the others who became multimillionaires while their contemporaries sweated freshman orientation and first jobs. How disorienting it must be to possess such magnificent talent, be so young, and feel so alone. He Got Game captures the disorientating part. The problem is that too often that feeling is unintentional.