Spike Lee: He Got Game (1998) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Spike Lee: He Got Game (1998)

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Jake Shuttlesworth is serving time in prison for killing his wife.  Outside the bars, his son Jesus has become the basketball superstar the entire country is trying to court.  The warden of Jake's prison gives Jake a one-week reprieve from his sentence to speak with his son.  If Jake can convince Jesus to sign with Big State, Jake will earn a lessened sentence.  Spike Lee directs He Got Game, starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen.

Premature celebrationAndrewCommentaryBannerTwelve films in and we are finally introduced to one of the most stable laws of the universe - Spike Lee loves basketball.  For years he's been a fixture at Knicks games and even engaged in a few public disputes with players like Reggie Miller.  But behind the media-inflated bluster of Spike's purported "interference" of the game he's just one of many devoted fans.  Spike just happens to be the kind of fan who can get court-side seats and use his expanding influence to make films about his love.

To that end we've got He Got Game, a very good film that nonetheless strikes a few odd chords in me.  From a visual level it's easy to understand why Spike loves basketball so much.  In the first shot on we see different people move in wide and tight spaces on the court with grace, and sometimes not, watching the careful arcs of their basketballs soar toward the net dozens of times.  Not a single one of these moments feels the same, and in those tiny details we see the genius of basketball as a cinematic medium.  Given the right cinematographer and director, any game of basketball can become a never-repeating sequence of movements, which is exactly how Spike keeps the game fresh throughout He Got Game.

But when He Got Game is weak it feels like we're entering into the same kind of troubling territory that brought She's Gotta Have It and School Daze down a peg.  Denzel Washington gives a tremendous performance as Jake, but Spike does cartwheels to avoid placing too much blame on Jake's shoulders.  Each discussion of Jake's wife's death is treated so nonchalantly that it hardly seems to affect the film, and even when we watch her death it's done with so much melodrama and so little blood that it seems like Jake is in prison falsely.  So by the time Spike has Jake healing a hooker with his sex I had stabilize my head to keep my eyes from rolling straight out.

How was your view of the court?Night matchKyle Commentary BannerAbout the same as yours. He Got Game is most successful when it's exploring the different ideas of what fatherhood is and means—something that's present in more than just Jake and Jesus' scenes together. Nearly everyone Jesus interacts with is trying to exert control over him in some way and the different takes on this type of relationship give the movie with some of its most interesting material.

His coach is trying to offer support—at first—right up until he joins the other prospective coaches and agents trying to lure Jesus in and maintain an exploiting level of control with money, fancy cars, etc. His legal guardians exemplify parenting as a responsibility and obligation, and consequently childhood as debt—they've done their part raising Jesus and his sister, and they love them, but they expect to be paid back. Jake is overwhelmingly guided by—whether genuine or not, a weakness you already pointed out in the screenplay—his sense of pride in the son he and his wife raised. And Jesus is a guardian and protector of his younger sister, acting as the type of father figure he never had.

When the movie's trying to examine the controlling influence inherent in these various parental relationships, it works really well—when it lapses into melodrama and genre trappings (such as the cringe-inducing scene where Jake meets Milla Jovovich for the first time), it skews toward terrible.I'd be incredulous about this love tooNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt wasn't until later that the moments with Jovovich hit a sour note.  I liked how Spike seemed to be placing parallel stories about how entrenched for-profit systems seek to drain the people below them of every financial benefit they can provide.  In Jesus's case it's his basketball skills, for Jake his perceived ability to exert influence on Jesus, and for Dakota it's her body.  The moment it all went bad for me is when we end up with that erotically lit sex scene where we find out once and for all that Jake isn't really a bad guy - how could he if he's interested in pleasing Dakota before himself?  Which falls especially flat since Spike used a similar lighting technique in School Daze to highlight how ridiculous those sex scenes are, and here it's a serious moment of healing for Jake and Dakota.

As much as I dislike the Dakota subplot, there's a nice counterpoint built into it with the Lala character played by Rosario Dawson.  She seems to be playing into the same kind of "manipulate Jesus and get what I want" crowd that just wants to get a taste of the money and fame he's sure to have.  But she's written as a savvy person who realizes before Jesus does that their relationship is one of mutual benefits.  Spike, Dawson, and Ray Allen (as Jesus), have a perfect scene toward the end where the two are fading into the dark on the bench as Lala lays out the emotional benefits Jesus gets from feeling like the "good guy" in their relationship and how Lala knows he won't be around forever and needs to take care of herself.  They're done, and Spike's dark lighting in this scene says that as much as anything else, but Spike doesn't leave Lala as yet another I Love You Leech (which we're introduced to in another great montage).

When He Got Game is working in this territory it's aces.  There's another mid-film montage where the morally ambiguous character Big Time (Roger Guenveur Smith) seems to be another negative influence on Jesus but goes over all the pitfalls of fame and the diseased people who will be attracted to Jesus.  As Big Time rants on Spike makes all the decadence, be it sex or drugs, look as unappealing as possible in quick, harshly lit cutaways that are like tiny earthquakes of visual pain to associate with acts normally constructed as pleasurable.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThis was one of the montages that didn't work super well for me actually. A lot of what Big Time's warning him against is pretty standard, so pulling it out to the length and attention Lee gives it seems cliche—and it also moves inevitably toward a “watch out for those women” trope that underlines a lot of scenes even as Lee seems like he's trying to complicate it with the Dawson character. Only in that last scene you mention does she really develop any true agency of her own—up until then she's presented as the scheming backstabber.

You get the same thing when Jesus visits Tech U (tangent: I love the generic school names here)—Lee's drawing our attention to the way people are trying to exert control over Jesus by inflating his ego, and the promise of women and sex are one of the key ways some of those interacting with him here try to do so. At the same time, the presentation of the women characters is so strongly and almost singularly as opportunistic succubi or sex objects that it sometimes diminishes the moments where he wants to step back and criticize this trope. Jovovich complicates this a bit by being (sometimes) in control, but she also rolls out the “I let him beat me because one day we're going to get married” cliché the first time Jake talks to her about Sweetness.

This brings up one of the things I really love about the movie though, which is the way it treats myth-making via sports. The opening with images of kids playing basketball all over the country—a range of rural to urban settings—draws on a nostalgic sense of the basketball as a crucial part of a collective American pastime. This merges in the first 20 minutes into some interesting moments where Lee chooses to shoot certain basketball scenes in the style of a commercial. The players are framed in bold, looming stances intercut with quick, stylized action shots. It has a very distinct effect where he's calling up the way commercials evoke myth, evoking that same thing himself in the way he's positioning the characters to the audience, and then zooming in to blow up that myth by examining what Jesus' status as a potential future “greatest player of all time” really means in his life and the lives of those around him.The flipside of RockyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryYou make a very good point about the Big Time sequence.  I was more interested in the shifting moral and economic compass around Jesus that Big Time is navigating as he is trying to teach a good lesson in a different moral context than we're used to.  But that series of montage's plays into the ongoing problem with the way every woman is treated like a sexual trophy.  Spike even reinforces this problem by hiring actual porn stars to be the two "assistant coaches" that play with Jesus.  So I'll concede that moment isn't as good as I initially thought.

In the spirit of taking the good with the bad, and building on the idea of myth-making via sports, that specific college visit with Jesus has one of the most diagetically confounding and outright brilliant moments in He Got Game.  When Jesus is led into the gigantic basketball arena he is followed by a single spotlight and the sound design heightens the echoes of his footsteps and voice.  As he sits down and looks up at the center display the main lights go out, many more spotlights appear, and he hears his name and watches his introduction on the screen as he's in his uniform and a crown of thorns.

I honestly cannot tell if this moment is entirely diagetic or not, and I love it for that reason.  It's clear that the hosts are pulling out all the stops to recruit him, but he's also obviously overwhelmed by the size of the crowd that could be wooing him.  His presentation on the board confuses this further - are they showing him a mockup of what his introduction would look like, or is he imagining himself as a martyr for his mother and father by playing basketball here?  But, as Lala makes clear later on, Jesus isn't dying for anyone and doesn't have anything to worry about.  The moment shows he is also a false idol, that he hasn't built himself up into the kind of man who can make huge moral decisions like that, and how his sense of self-reflection barely goes further than what other people want him to see in himself.

There are other bits of heightened reality that I enjoyed, like the way that all the supposedly high school basketball players look like they can legally drink (in Allen's case, he could).  I also liked the way prison followed Jake around, either as he is framed through the bars of a window, behind a chain-link fence, or when he is physically distorted to look like a prison bar at the end.  This also brings up more questions about how much of Spike's relationship with his family gets into his films, especially since Bill Lee tried to trade on Spike's fame to avoid drug charges.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI'm still thinking too about how Lee wants us to view Jake at the end of the movie. He doesn't really change as a character, which feels a little weird given his sentimental role in the film's final scene, considering his relationship to Jesus is every bit as opportunistic and manipulative as anyone else. Lee presents him in the screenplay as guy who loves the images he's created of his family more than the individuals underneath—his fixation on pushing Jesus to be great so he can fulfill the tough-love mentor role—but Washington portrays him with more complexity than this, and Lee seems to want us to feel positively about their relationship in the end.

He's presented almost in a martyred way—returning to prison without a reduced sentence, humiliated at a loss to his son on the court, nearly getting shot by a guard—but he hasn't sacrificed anything, and in the end Jesus really has no more reason to be grateful to his father than he had to start. Lee uses a lot of cinematic conventions to convince us that their relationship has changed and that they've come to some deeper understanding of one another—I'm just not sure I know or understand what that is.Light 'em up JesusNewer Andrew cutout commentary Since Jungle Fever, Lee's prominent fiction films have had difficulty navigating the worlds of personal need, professional obligations, and societal reflections on both.  He has almost no trouble with the latter two that it makes the first so frustrating when what's being communicated on the personal level is either morally dubious or completely unclear.  When He Got Game soars it's in business deals and their pressure on Jesus, like that heavily top-lit scene of Jesus and his high school coach that looks so hot under the lights their skin looks like it could burn at any minute.

But on the personal it's so muddled because there's never a solid moral stance taken with Jake.  He's got a violent temper, but he's in jail because of a flash accident.  He's so suspicious of women that he's sympathetic to Sampson, but he takes his time to pleasure a prostitute before getting to his own business.  He wants the best for his son, but still has his own agenda for getting out of jail earlier and barely discusses why one school is better than the next.

Jake is a frustrating and unclear character in a poorly gendered film with moments of confusing brilliance.  Now that I'm thinking of Spike's career from this point on, I'm wondering how many times I'll be using a variation of that sentence.  Since we're watching Spike's first stage film next week I don't think we'll be dealing with it again, but we need to revisit this when we get to Summer of Sam and beyond.

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Posted by Andrew

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