Monday, July 2, 2012

(Breaking) The Rules Of the Game: Spike Lee's "He Got Game"

As a teenager, I religiously watched the NBA Draft every June, even though it tended to hold the same interest level as the MLB All-Star Game: there's a lot of hype, pageantry, and breathless conversations by the hosts and announcers, and I'd enjoy the first hour and a half before being sidetracked by other activities. I haven't had cable for a few years now, so the time I devoted to this year's draft was limited to web previews and recaps. By sheer coincidence, I ended up watching Spike Lee's 1998 film He Got Game the same evening as this year's draft. In favorable hindsight, I feel that I got much more out of the film than I would have gotten out of the back-patting idolatry of the NBA showcase. Lee's film is presented with setups of conventional cinema, but almost gleefully tears down these conventions in one of the most unexpectedly artful films of the 1990s. Admittedly, there are large chunks of Lee's filmography that I still need to catch up on, but I've noticed that even his lesser acclaimed films have at least a touch of creativity not seen with a lot of filmmakers. He Got Game has a devoted following among basketball fans, and as always, Lee is unafraid of tackling even the most sensitive subjects head-on.

The film opens with a beautiful jazz soundtrack and footage of various youths--male, female, black, white, urban, rural--shooting baskets in a variety of ways, slowed down to showcase the art and physics of a ball arcing into a hoop. It then turns into a drama, with an established scenario that is both standard and slightly implausible, but done in a straightforward manner so the viewer doesn't get terribly caught up in the logistics. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is summoned to meet with the prison warden, who offers him a deal. He's prepared to let Jake out of prison for a week to connect with his estranged son Jesus (now-NBA veteran Ray Allen). Jake is given a letter of intent to fictional Big State University: if he can convince Jesus, the nation's best prep basketball player, to accept a scholarship to the school (an idea proposed by the unseen governor, one of the school's biggest boosters), Jake will receive an early parole. Carefully monitored by an ankle bracelet and two police supervisors (including a terrific performance by Jim Brown), Jake is set up in a Coney Island motel and is generally free to come and go, with the seemingly insurmountable goal of a.) getting in his son's good graces, and b.) getting him to sign the letter of intent.

Jesus is rightfully angry at his father for the murder of his mother (this isn't a spoiler in a sense; when the scene plays out in a flashback, it makes the situation more complex, but not absolving Jake of wrongdoing) when he was a child. He rebuffs Jake's attempts at a connection, and is dealing with a serious amount of pressure. Everyone, from his high school coach to national commentators, are anxious to know which school Jesus plans to attend, assuming he doesn't jump straight to the NBA. He's the primary caretaker of his younger sister (a beautiful acting job by Zelda Harris), along with his ineffectual aunt and uncle. His girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) is pressuring him to meet with an influential sports agent, whom she claims is a family friend. Jesus is continually claiming that he doesn't know where he wants to take his basketball career, and even in the face of corruption and pressure, he's steadfast in his resolve to (no pun intended) do the right thing.

His natural assumption is that his father wants money, not believing that he's out of prison on a "work-release program" (as Jake claims). As the film progresses, the idea of money becomes even more intense. In one of the film's best sequences, one of Jesus's associates asks him if he's ready for the people claiming to love him because of his wealth. A series of faces are projected on the screen, imploring Jesus for a handout in between claims of love and respect, until one of the faces goes even further: a young woman claims "my baby needs diapers, I need Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel." This idea, while relatively unexplored in 1998 (I could be wrong; I was fifteen years old when the film was released), has taken on more sociological meanings today. In 2005, the NBA established a rule that all eligible draftees had to complete at least one year of college ball, forbidding players from entering the NBA straight out of high school. There was rightful controversy over this, as expressed in the film in two different ways. Talented high school players, wanting to get their families out of the projects and poverty, now have to complete a year of college beforehand. The allure of money, as documented countless times since, leads a lot of young black players to be overcome by an influx of "friends" and estranged family members looking for security. Later in the film, Jesus pays a visit to another school, and is treated to lavish inducements to play for them, including sexual enticements and a ludicrous pitch from the school's religious coach (a hilarious cameo by John Turturro). Even before the 2005 rule, the idea of a student-athlete was fragile at best, and now, with players choosing colleges with an eye on getting to the pros after a year, it's even more laughable. Lee manages to make these two financial aspects both singular ideas as well as intertwined realities. Another wrinkle presents itself during a meeting between Jesus and a white sports agent. The agent does everything he can, from flattery to illegal bribes, to make Jesus sign a contract and turn professional. The agent knows nothing about Jesus's true personality, and the scene is shot to show how the man is doing his best to exploit the young man for his own financial gain. In a still prevalent world in which poor black men face limited options, the idea of exploitation is intense. If Jesus had no basketball skills whatsoever, he wouldn't be getting the kind of attention he does. This idea is meant to be obvious, but the claims of personal affection and respect are done not out of any true meaning, but because of dollar signs.

When not trying to coax a conversation with his son, Jake is primarily alone. However, he forms a bond with Dakota, an abused prostitute living in the motel room next to his (an early role by Milla Jovovich). Lee sets up the interactions between Jake and Dakota carefully, lulling the viewer into an expectation of a confrontation between Jake and the pimp. Instead, Jake manages to borrow money to get Dakota off the street for one night. They have sex, and while there's a definite connection between the two, Lee doesn't opt for the obvious solutions. There's no fight between Jake and the pimp, and there's no illusion that he and Dakota have magically found true love. Rather, it's the portrait of a bond between two very troubled people, and it's rendered as touchingly as can be. Jake, in agony over his son's hate, needs an interaction, and it shows his genuine goodness in the face of his previous actions. This notion of Jake's bad qualities being born out of his inner goodness (and the other way around) is also shown in the flashback to his wife's death. After riding young Jesus too hard during a practice session at a nearby court, their fight dominoes into an intense confrontation at home, leading to his wife's death. Jake is at fault, but his crime spiraled out of hand. In He Got Game's most wrenching scene, Jake tries to revive his wife and doesn't try to cover up or absolve himself from wrongdoing. Watch the scene, and look at Denzel Washington's eyes as Jake tells his son to call 911.

Jake and Jesus do end up having their conversations, culminating in their final interaction (more like a showdown). Jake gives his son an ultimatum, to be decided in a brief game of one-on-one. While the outcome is important, the scene is tied together by Jake's final instruction to his son, telling him to get rid of his hate, which will make him no different than anyone else on the street, talent be damned. Jesus makes his choice, and the film ends with alternating shots of Jake and Jesus shooting baskets alone, with a final shot that mirrors the film's opening (at least thematically) and hints to the act that spearheaded their biggest fight years ago and also leaves the window open for both men coming to terms with each other and themselves. Does this sound sappy and not unlike any other film ending? It sounds that way, but Lee pulls it off very carefully. It also shows the therapeutic benefits of shooting baskets by oneself. When I lived in Seattle, I dealt with my writing frustrations on my apartment's basketball court, and almost always came away from it refreshed and with renewed focus. Lee takes the tired cliche of "sports as more than just a game" and elevates it to a metaphysical level.

He Got Game has been on my "to-watch" list for years, and it's arguably one of the best sports films ever made. There are no cliches or easy answers provided, and Lee knows the game of basketball so well as to share its importance to the people who love it most, with the shady outside aspects leaving the game itself untarnished on a simple, pure level. Even with the standard cinematic conventions, it's an art film on many levels. The decision to cast NBA star Ray Allen as Jesus was a move of genius, since there are so few scenes showing him actually playing the game. He has the look and demeanor of a young man being exposed to too much at an early age, and Allen's stumbles with acting (in a few scenes, his voice barely rises above a monotone, flat delivery) make his role that much more believable, and everyone, from the main characters to the smaller supporting ones, are cast perfectly. Most importantly, Lee takes the ideas of race and opportunity in America and gives them a new sort of complexity. The business world of collegiate and professional basketball have always had a divide between predominantly black and poor players and white ownership and management, and fourteen years later, He Got Game can still be viewed as a contemporary sociological commentary.

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