Spike Lee’s new movie, He Got Game (Touchstone), opens with reverent slow-motion images of young men and women shooting hoops (in driveways, in the sun-dappled countryside, on squalid city playgrounds), the entire sequence set to the soaringly discordant orchestral sounds of Aaron Copland’s John Henry. Right from the start, Lee invites us to see basketball as a majestic myth of national striving. He’s also announcing the grandeur of his ambition, which is to tell an epic tale of sports and celebrity, of fathers and sons, of the physicality of American grace.
At the beginning of the movie, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), a convicted murderer, is let out of prison on an unofficial furlough granted by the governor of New York. Jake has just one week to persuade his son, the greatest high school basketball player in the country, to attend the politician’s alma mater. If Jake succeeds, his sentence, he’s told, will be reduced. Lest we have any doubt about what the stakes are, Jake’s son is named Jesus. He’s played by the 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen, a sternly handsome figure who, in He Got Game, makes an unusually vivid acting debut for a professional athlete.
Jake’s prison escorts get him a room at a dingy flophouse in his native Coney Island, and once there, he sets about trying to reconnect with his son. It’s a daunting task, for the 18-year-old Jesus despises Jake, the father who taught him to play basketball but, as we learn in flashback, descended into violence. (His brutal act is complex, comparable to the one committed by Robert Duvall’s raging preacher in The Apostle.) Is Jake an opportunist, or is he a good man who truly cares about Jesus? A saddened, almost defeated figure, he’s actually both at once. Jake once yearned to be a professional basketball player, and, like many fathers who see themselves as failed dreamers, he became his son’s toughest coach. With a striking musical score that employs the symphonic works of Copland and several new Public Enemy cuts (notably a title track that memorably samples the pinpoint guitar riff from Buffalo Springfield’s ”For What It’s Worth”), He Got Game traces the parallel stories of Jake, the screwup grasping for redemption, and Jesus, the shining superstar besieged by agents, scouts, groupies, and the media.
In just one week, Jesus has to announce what school he’ll attend, or whether he’ll join the NBA draft, and the whole world, it seems, wants to know his mind. Celebrity — or at least, celebrity in the ruthless era of late-’90s capitalism — is a new theme for Lee, and he does a dazzling job of evoking the whirlwind of temptation that’s buffeting Jesus. Lala (Rosario Dawson), Jesus’ sly-fox girlfriend, tries to hook him up with an agent who promises him instant riches if he’ll just go pro. But what’s Lala’s angle? Jesus visits a college where he’s surrounded by white-girl harpies who want to sleep with him. He’s not just a star — he’s money, and everyone wants a piece. All of this is made vivid and searing, as Lee and his virtuosic cinematographer, Malik Hassan Sayeed, use grainy, overheated flash cuts to evoke the thicket of conflicts bedeviling Jesus. The film would have been stronger, though, had Lee’s portrayal of women not been so schematic. They’re either vixens or broken-down saints, like the flophouse prostitute (Milla Jovovich) who becomes Jake’s lover.
It’s refreshing to see Denzel Washington forgo his usual stoic pride to play an impoverished inner-city sad sack in a bad Afro. Holding his body erect but letting his face go slack with depression, Washington gives a meticulous, implosive performance that, at times, feels overly studied — indeed, a bit armored. Moved as I was by Jake’s plight, I never completely believed in the lackadaisical desperation of Washington’s ”street” manner. Ray Allen makes a pleasingly virtuous hero, though the character of Jesus has been conceived with too much role-model rectitude.
Inevitably, the film culminates in Jake and Jesus’ facing off in a game of one-on-one. That, in a sense, is what they’ve been doing for the entire movie, feinting and spinning, trying to score off each other’s moves. He Got Game is suffused with Spike Lee’s near-religious love for basketball: his worship of it as a game, and as an embodiment of the African-American quest for upward mobility (no one is higher on God’s earth than the man who dunks). As is often the case with Lee, though, the film left me wishing for even more scenes of casual intimacy, still the most powerful way to carry any message. B+