He Got Game
directed by Spike Lee
(Buena Vista, 1997)

Spike Lee's He Got Game is based on two far-fetched ideas: 1) that the governor of New York would free an inmate for a week in hopes he can convince his hoop-star son to sign with the governor's alma mater; and 2) that Aaron Copland's music would somehow impart a magical sense of America to endless slow-motion shots of basketballs arcing through the air to their promised rims.

In the wrong hands, either of these ideas could sink a film faster than a G rating. In Lee's hands, though, they not only work -- they fuel one another to dizzying heights.

He Got Game also encompasses a number of Lee's better-known themes: the black family's struggle to escape the projects, father-son conflicts, black male bonding and the need for people to come to terms with what they've done. That would seem to place it in the cinematic "novel of ideas'' category. And yet it works as a dramatic film as well, in spite of some rapid-fire "Sports Center'' bits by famous players and coaches.

All the technique that Lee has at his disposal can't derail the simple story of high school senior Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), who's been raised from the cradle to play basketball like no man before him, except maybe for Earl "The Pearl'' Monroe. Shuttlesworth's father, Jake (Denzel Washington), is the man who berates Jesus, bedevils him, but ultimately believes in him, despite his own fears of never escaping the projects.

But Jesus disowns Jake after a domestic dispute leads to the death of Jesus' mother. Jake heads off to jail for 15 years, and Jesus goes on to high-school hoops stardom and the responsibility of raising his younger sister (Zelda Harris) pretty much on his own.

But Jake is only one force working on Jesus: he comes under just as much fire from his uncle (Bill Nunn), his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), a former teammate (Travis Best), an agent and his coach, all of whom turn up the heat as the deadline approaches for Jesus to commit himself. Inducements include $10,000 in cash, a $36,000 watch and a quarter-of-a-million-dollar sports car, not to mention interracial sex with multiple partners.

"When making a business decision, the only color that counts is green," the agent tells him.

It's a movable feast of temptation; watching an 18-year-old try to resist it isn't easy. Watching his family and closest friends trying to cash in on his talent is heart-wrenching.

Since breaking into the mainstream of cinema with Do the Right Thing, Lee's work has been variable. Always he asks probing questions, but often he turns to platitudes or mawkish sentimentality as the clock runs out. In He Got Game, that doesn't happen because the characters stay with you long after the events of the moment are gone -- especially Washington's Jake Shuttlesworth, a man who's repentant, but keeps his head high.

Washington does a good job of showing Shuttlesworth worming his way back into his son's life -- without letting himself become a worm. Ultimately, Lee scores with He Got Game because he doesn't let his plot or characters become predictable, and he doesn't resort to pat answers: indeed, the film's first question is never answered at all.

Which answers an even more important question: yes, Lee still has what it takes. And lots more.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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