He Got Game
Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Hill Harper, Rosario Dawson, Milla Jovovich, Zelda Harris, Bill Nunn, Jim Brown, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Ned Beatty. Screenplay: Spike Lee.

Spike Lee, to borrow his own locution, has definitely got game. This is a man who knows how to use a camera, who knows how to mine a situation for its drama, and who seems to possess all the energy and passion for filmmaking that cannot be taught. He is a director of great promise, which is not to short-change the established confidence and craftsmanship of the work he has behind him, like 1992's fascinating though somewhat stilted Malcolm X. I should also admit off the bat that I have not yet seen Do the Right Thing, widely held to be Lee's signal accomplishment thus far, and I am thus at a disadvantage in describing his past achievements.

However, on the sole evidence of his latest film, He Got Game, Spike Lee is—like the high school basketball phenom at the center of the picture—a terrific raw talent in equally terrific need of discipline, compassion, and maturity. More specifically, and even more like his protagonist, Lee's aspects of immaturity and roughness are all the more depressing because when he's on, he's really on. As a result, He Got Game is encouraging but frustrating, a disappointing and at times infuriating film that nonetheless suggests that if Spike Lee ever whips himself into shape, few people will be able to touch him.

The scenario of He Got Game begins when Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), an Attica inmate on a 20-year sentence, answers a summons to the warden's office, where he is told that his sentence may be reduced immediately if, on a week-long furlough, he can convince his son Jesus (Ray Allen), the "number-one-ranked high school basketball star in the country," to attend the governor's alma mater, Big State University. Sure, the situation is a tad far-fetched, but hold your horses; not only is suspension of disbelief fairly easy once the film starts (at least in this particular regard), but Lee is too sharp to let the picture end without calling our attention back to this initial implausibility.

The strength of the movie keeps building as we meet Jesus, a process largely conducted through our observations of other people meeting Jesus. A train of sycophants, advice-givers, beggars, and recruiters dog Jesus in the halls of his school, on the court, and even in his home—not even his family is immune to capitalizing on his largely self-driven accomplishments. Jesus is vaguely perturbed by everyone's exaggerated interest in his future, but when Jake shows up, sitting in the kitchen with Jesus' sister Mary (Crooklyn star Zelda Harris), we finally see the tough-guy impassivity break apart.

Or do we just see it raised to a new level? What follows, after all, is a clash of wills with a bullishness on both sides worthy of Pamplona. Jesus is terminally angry with his father for his crime, which we come to discover is the murder of Jesus' mother, Jake's wife. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, cannily teases out the exact reasons for Jake's conviction and Jesus' rage, and the movie retains its focus around this central tension just long enough to raise our expectations well into slam-dunk altitudes.

I think He Got Game's collapse—an apt term, since the entire central hour of the picture is a mess on almost every front—begins in the very next scene, when Jesus reports down the hall to his guardians, Uncle Bubba and Aunt Sally, that Jake is mysteriously out of prison. (Jake knows that if he reveals the conditions of his release, his already-slim chances of successful persuasion will dissipate to about zero.) The writing of the scene is almost incredibly clumsy. Sally holds a photo of Jesus' mother and whimpers something about "your poor, late mother, my sister"; Lee obviously intends for the line to reveal to us how Sally is related to Jesus and suggest the details of Jake's criminality, but why would Sally speak like this to Jesus, who knows all of this?

Worse, Uncle Bubba—played by Bill Nunn, an actor so broad that I have come to dread his presence—almost immediately voices his wish that Jesus share some of his inevitable cash flow with himself and his wife; his temper increases to the point of accusing his nephew of hiding income he is already receiving. Jesus is shocked at their betrayal. We have no reason to understand his surprised reaction, since we have never seen Bubba previous to this occasion, and we know right from the get-go that he's a lout.

Our perspective and Jesus' are thus significantly divided, the beginning of a long trend by which we know things he doesn't know and therefore view his decisions as poor ones. We see through most of the sirens and tricksters around Jesus well before he does, constantly making us wonder why he is so imperceptive. A more effective film—and clearly the one Lee intends—would have us more empathetically aligned with his character.

Meanwhile, Jake has moved into an apartment next door to a hooker, crudely impersonated by Milla Jovovich in some of her Fifth Element-approved tissue-and-bandage "outfits." The role of the abused prostitute and Jovovich's asinine rendering are bad enough, but as the film progresses, and Lee increasingly portrays Jake's compassion for her as some sort of gallantry, the character's very presence takes on a sinster import. Her scenes tend to follow others in which Jake's reckless violence, his uncontrollable temper, and his abuse of his family members make his character increasingly unsavory.

The scenes with Jovovich, then, seem planted to "redeem" him in the very instances of his worst transgressions. That mission is soon transparent, because any idea that Jake or the movie actually cares about her is quickly dispelled by her total disappearance from the plot once the exposition of Jake's flaws and crimes has been completed. She serves the structural needs of Lee's screenplay, inciting in Jake a flimsy sense of "honor" Lee desperately wants Jake to assume, but she herself receives none of the compassion Lee improbably lavishes on Jake himself. The fury that some audiences have so far targeted at Jovovich for her interracial love scene with Washington would be far more appropriately aimed at Lee for creating the character so callously.

Not that such cynical treatment of a female character is unique within this film, whose every woman besides the insensible Jovovich character is either a distant, removed angel and relative of Jesus' (the deceased mother and the oddly-vanished sister) or a wanton, manipulating seductress who cares little or nothing about the men they brazenly manipulate. Entire scenes are framed around close-ups of women's breasts, and then Lee has the audacity to incriminate these women for unfairly tempting Jesus. His surrender to their voluptuous come-ons is painted as an inevitable result of an extreme pressure of which Jesus is the victim; meanwhile, the camera ogles and ogles, and tosses the women aside as soon as they are dressed. For a while, Jesus' perceptive and articulate girlfriend Lala (the charismatic Rosario Dawson) is exempted from all this...but only for a while.

The hypocritical misogyny of He Got Game is a fundamental weakness that reviewers so far have been happy to downplay or even to dismiss. Not that the film doesn't have other, more crucially damaging weaknesses. The scenario of Martha Shuttlesworth's murder, which we eventually witness, springs in an unexpected and simplistic way from the film's primary preoccupation with basketball. The sequence means to deepen Jake's character, but it actually makes it more superficial, denying him any motivation, behavior, or relationship that is not defined by this sport. (Martha, by the same token, has no identity besides the wife and the mother of basketball players and the martyr of sporting enthusiasm.) This monolithic characterization through basketball wouldn't be as problematic if Washington's typically interior, nuanced performance did not imply a whole network of impulses and mental conflicts that have little or nothing to do with athletics. The actor brings the potential for psychological nuance to the party, but Lee finds little use for it.

Even worse is the resolution of the overarching mystery of where Jesus will decide to attend college. I will not reveal his choice, but I will say that even by the time of its announcement, the film has never once revealed a single detail of the package that particular school is offering him. The only logical conclusion we can draw as Jesus' motivation is not supported by the acting, the camerawork, or the writing of the preceding scenes. I left the theater with no idea of what is important to Jesus, how his thought process worked, or what his life will be like when the movie was over—and these, Spike Lee would have us believe, are the driving questions of his story.

Despite this long catalogue—and it could be longer—of He Got Game's surprising omissions and foundational weaknesses, the picture is not without merit. Indeed, the opening and closing sequences are poetic—literally fantastic—and laden with the kinds of genuine emotion that the rest of the picture so sorely lacks. Even the religious allusions of the film, which sound unbearable on paper—a brother and sister named Jesus and Mary?—are actually rendered quite satisfyingly in the film as an outgrowth of the whole country's fanaticism about its sports and its athletes.

Even here, however, Lee is sophomoric and reductive in his portrait of Jesus as Christ figure, as victim, as if he did not make active decisions to cheat on his girlfriend, or to accept bribes. These moral compromises are not forced upon them, he elects to perform them; otherwise, if they are helplessly inflicted, then Lee has fashioned a character with no capability for adult decision-making. Given his providing for his sister, his careful deliberation about school, and his other moments of real principle, this estimation is not credible.

I admire Spike Lee's ambition in mounting a sports drama that also wants to be a probing father-son drama and a sort of modern religious parallel. I am not impressed, however, when his compassion for two characters (who probably deserve a tad less than they receive) comes at the cost of categorical scorn for other people in his movie, even other populations. (If you are a white female, for example, just stay home.) I am also not convinced that a movie containing so many awkward celebrity guest shots, so clearly indicative of Spike Lee's personal clout, can always see past its own director's egomania to penetrate the heart of its story. I am not even sure where the heart of this story is; I am quite sure, however, of several places where it is not.

Spike Lee will make great films in the future, and for all I know from my limited sampling, he has already made some. I suspect that one of these great films is hidden inside He Got Game, but until he learns to reconcile his ambitions and play fair with his characters, his movies are not going to trip all over themselves. Much is foul in He Got Game, which has the particularly galling tendency to believe it's stating one thing when the sum of its scenes proclaims quite another. Lee, however, is bound to be his own best coach through practice. I'll probably buy a ticket to another Spike Lee Joint some time, but I might wait another season or two. Grade: C

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