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African-American Cinema, American Independents

Spike Lee Joint 1: He Got Game (US 1997)

Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth.

Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth.

Spike Lee has often referred to his own obsession with the ‘Knicks’ basketball team in New York, so it isn’t a surprise that he decided to make a film about basketball. ‘Sports films’ constitute a familiar genre in Hollywood, but they are often concerned with American sports that relatively few people worldwide actually understand (i.e. baseball and American football). Basketball is played in most countries but not in a professional way like it is with the NBA in the US. Although we don’t really understand these American sports, Hollywood generally simplifies them enough to turn a sporting event into a familiar cinematic dramatic narrative. This usually means that the film has little credibility with sports fans since it lacks authenticity either in the storyline or the presentation of the action on screen. Fortunately He Got Game is not a Hollywood movie, so it does something else.

I suggest that it isn’t a Hollywood movie, even though it stars Denzel Washington, by the late 1990s an A List star, and was released by Touchstone, a Disney Brand. The-Numbers.com suggests that the production budget of the film was $25 million which signifies a medium budget picture. What this means to me is that this was one of those Spike Lee blags in which he persuades a studio to cough up money and then produces something different to what the studio expects – the film opened at No 1 on 1,300 screens but died fairly quickly for a $21 million US box office gross. It does, however, have a following of sorts.

Hollywood narratives are usually linear and goal-centred, so sports films tend to feature a number of games/performances culminating in winning a championship contest. He Got Game ends with a contest of sorts, but there are no conventional sports contests. Instead this is a film about the commercialisation and professionalisation of sport in the US, its place in African-American culture and specifically in the father-son relationship within the African-American family. The generic narrative is actually drawn from the prison movie. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth apparently in prison (Attica) for a long stretch. He practises his basketball technique in the prison yard in order to keep fit and one day he is called into the warden’s office to be made an astounding offer. He will be released on special leave for a short period in order to persuade his son, Jesus, to enrol at ‘Big State’. Jesus has been named as the No 1 high school basketball player in the country and his enrolment is being sought by all the big basketball schools. The warden is intent on pleasing the governor, who is backing Big State. When Jake agrees to the ‘mission’ (after assurance that success could shorten his sentence) we begin to learn, via series of flashbacks, why he is in prison and how Jesus came to be such a star player. The time limit is the date by which Jesus must make a decision – only a few days away. Will he make the right decision? I won’t reveal what happens, but needless to say, there must be dramatic tension, which I don’t think is released in the most conventional way.

One of the strengths of Spike Lee’s filmmaking is cinematography and visual design and another is music. The opening to He Got Game is stunning in every way. If you didn’t know already, you would quickly be convinced that Lee loves basketball and wishes to place it on a pedestal as the ultimate American game – to mythologise it as Richard Falcon in Sight and Sound suggests. (‘He Got Game’ appears to be a complimentary remark confirming that someone can really play the game.) The camerawork by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who worked on several Lee films in the 1990s, draws on documentary styles and allied to the use of Aaron Copland’s music on the soundtrack it presents a series of beautiful images of street and on court basketball across the US and in and around Coney Island. The film’s aesthetic is constructed around a seeming contradiction. Although all the basketball footage is highly stylised – the ball is often in slow motion – there is also a strong thread of cinematic realism. Coney Island is the Shuttlesworth home and the Abraham Lincoln High School is a real school – one of the best-known and most successful public schools in America. Not being a fan of classical music, I also wasn’t aware that Aaron Copland is in many ways an appropriate composer to use in scoring the film. Copland was another Brooklyn boy who ‘done good’ – an intriguing figure, Jewish, gay and a socialist according to the Wikipedia entry. On the soundtrack, the Copland pieces are mainly used for the basketball moments and contrasted with Public Enemy used for the home life of Jesus. I was also intrigued by Lee’s use of the unusual name Shuttlesworth for the central characters. Doing a bit of internet research I came up with one of the highly honoured leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth (born 1922). I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. (The naming of ‘Jesus’ is explained in the narrative and has a similar resonance in terms of the treatment of Black sports stars – Lee’s original motivation to make a sports film was the story of the Black baseball player Jackie Robinson who ‘broke the colour barrier’.)

This symbolism/realism also carries through to the discourse about the commercialisation of basketball. Jesus watches himself on television and we are offered a range of TV clips featuring the various coaches who praise Jesus. Lee’s critique of TV journalism pre-figures his attacks in Bamboozled and he can’t resist pushing the jokes as far as possible, so that one of the funniest scenes in the movie sees another Spike Lee regular, John Turturro, as a coach welcoming Jesus into his enormous basketball stadium with a montage of Jesus images on the big screen monitors, many taken from Denys Arcand’s Jésus of Montréal (Canada/France 1989) – a film itself satirising media images of the crucifixion.

The problem for Lee is how to meld his paean to basketball and satire on commercial sports to a family melodrama involving a father in prison. This is where he has to use the powerful star image of Washington – which he does very well with Denzel turning in a great performance, even with an Afro that seems rather dated. I confess that I’m not an historian of hair styles and I can’t remember when this style disappeared, but I’m assuming that it signifies how ‘out of touch’ Jake is (though he seems very aware of the latest model of Air Jordans in the shoe shop – Lee has had several commissions from Nike). Washington is both zen-like, gentle and vulnerable, crumpled even, but also hard and vicious as the occasion demands. I think he also works well with Ray Allen, a ‘real’ basketball star without acting experience who plays Jesus.

There are good and bad reviews of the film. The ones that suggest Lee only deals in stereotypes really piss me off. On the contrary, Lee always picks out interesting Black families with characters who live in real places doing believable things. Jesus is not a stereotypical Hollywood Black youth. He is a basketball player (all the basketball plays are ‘real’ not simulated) and a boy who has, understandably turned against his father. His little sister is that rare thing in American cinema, a believable child torn between brother, a surrogate father and her real Dad.

The film is not without its flaws. As usual, unfortunately, Spike’s writing for women seems less developed than for the male characters and I can’t really see why the film needed its sex scenes to be presented in such detail. Presumably both Jake and Jesus had to be seen having sex with prostitutes to emphasise the father-son similarities and possible differences (i.e. in the circumstances in which they found themselves). One of the better reviews (from a fan) suggests that there are many matching shots of the son and the father doing similar things. The film is also too long at 134 minutes – but apart from trimming a few scenes, I don’t think I could see where to cut it significantly. Finally, there is the race question. From one line of dialogue and the brief appearance of Jesus’ mother in a flashback, I gathered that Spike wanted to say something about mixed marriages, but I couldn’t work out what.

The film is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it and worth watching again to savour the basketball scenes with the Copland music.

Here’s the trailer – quite good at suggesting rather than revealing the narrative, I think:

and here is part of the opening sequence:

Well, do you want to watch the rest?

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Spike Lee Joint 1: He Got Game (US 1997)

  1. I managed to watch this on its release and it is one of my favourite Lee films. I like this idea about the blag, the studio must have been fuming when Spike Lee delivered ‘He Got Game’ – not only is it uncompromising in terms of its running time, but it is yet another brilliant political essay with a fantastic soundtrack by Public Enemy. ‘Clockers’ faced a similar problem at the box office on its release and was quickly forgotten. I have always been intrigued by that end shot with the basketball as some kind of wider symbol as it magically bounces across the frames – still not sure what this means though, what do you think?

    Posted by OMAR AHMED | August 19, 2009, 09:19
    • Also thinking about it, had ‘He Got Game’ been released today I think it would have performed much better at the box office as Denzel Washington is currently a box office champ – I can’t remember the last time one of his films failed at the box office.

      Posted by OMAR AHMED | August 19, 2009, 09:22
      • I just watched the end again and I think that I didn’t really do the film justice. It’s a terrific piece of filmmaking and packed with a range of meanings. I don’t want to give the actual ending away but it seems to me that it is both dramatically satisfying – returning us to the key moment in the flashbacks – and politically charged. It emphasises the concept of ‘crossing the line’ and challenging identities and commitments. Jake has done everything he can to help Jesus (and also by extension the cousin who hasn’t learned to read properly and the prostitute he encountered on his parole). His own future is uncertain, but Spike has exposed a corrupt system and explored a range of social and political problems that face young black males (it reminds me a little of the opening of Boyz ‘n the Hood).

        I wish I could say that the film would do better business released today, but I doubt it. Denzel was a big enough star to open pictures wide in 1998. His ‘African-American’ films, i.e. those about Black communities/culture, however, still struggle. His last directorial effort, The Great Debaters, has not even been released in the UK

        Posted by venicelion | August 19, 2009, 10:48

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