Courtside at a Knicks game, he analyzes each play like Ken Starr at a new bimbo eruption. His TV ads for Nike Air Jordans made a fetish out of footwear. His latest film starts with a slick, ad-ready shot of a Spalding humming above the rim of a hoop like a teasing prelude to sex – great sex. It’s easy to see how Spike Lee feels about basketball: He’s gotta have it. But his love is not blind. That’s why He Got Game provides potent entertainment even if you find hoops about as enticing as soggy sweat socks. Lee scores points for capturing the thrill of the game without flinching from its abuses.
Lee’s twelfth film is full of surprises, most of them good ones. For starters, He Got Game is a character study, not a jockudrama, blending the acclaimed social observation of Do the Right Thing with the underrated family dynamics of Crooklyn. Milwaukee Bucks guard and acting neophyte Ray Allen is acutely affecting as Jesus Shuttlesworth, a motherless, money-strapped Brooklyn kid from the Coney Island projects who also happens to be the top high school hoopster in the nation. That means everyone wants to tear a chunk off this black Jesus, including agents, coaches, lovers, friends, family members and even his estranged father, Jake, played with edgy attitude and an Afro by the star of Lee’s Malcolm X and Mo’ Better Blues, Denzel Washington.
The con jobs done in the name of sports recruiting, touched on in Jerry Maguire and in the superb 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, are ripe for Spikestyle skewering. The best student-athletes are wooed with scholarships from college recruiters, who can generate millions in TV game rights and spinoff products (jerseys, T-shirts) for the relatively low price of tuition. The big question for Jesus is whether to accept a scholarship or just skip the education thing and go straight for the jackpot in the NBA, where profits are A-OK.
He Got Game introduces us to Jesus during the week when he must make that call. His girlfriend, Lala, played with sizzle to spare by Rosario Dawson, tries blow jobs and then betrayal to steer him toward pro money. His uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn) lays on a guilt trip about how much is due him for taking Jesus in after his mother died. Even his adoring kid sister, Mary (a touching Zelda Harris), finds her head filled with fantasies about the changes big bucks can bring.
At eighteen, Jesus is being stormed by temptations. Local shark Big Time Willie (Roger Guenveur Smith) cites money, drugs and pussy. (Jesus’ teammate Booger Sykes, played by Hill Harper, spells that last one puHIV.) Lee’s take on the college flesh pits may seem hyperbolic – are there that many bodacious coeds ready to fuck a hoop hunk for the sake of a winning team? – but the family and career pressures are real, and Allen, the twenty-two-year-old Bucks star who attended the University of Connecticut after high school in South Carolina, has publicly attested to them.
Allen draws on his own confusion and anger to play Jesus, handling the family scenes with a poignancy that belies his lack of acting experience. Working with Washington also helps. Jake is a cliché – the hard-driving father who pushes his son to heights he himself could never achieve. But Washington is outstanding at cutting through the familiar contours of the role to expose the father’s pain.
Washington’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy considering the melodramatic contrivances of Lee’s script. Jake has been in jail for nearly seven years for an act of violence that led to the death of Jesus’ mother, Martha (Lonette McKee). Jake is given a chance at a commuted sentence if he can persuade his son to accept a scholarship at the college that graduated the state’s governor. To that end, Jake is released from prison for a week and trailed by parole officer Spivey (football great Jim Brown in fine form) as he tries to reconcile with Jesus, who hates him. Set up at a fleabag hotel where Sweetness (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a black pimp, beats up on white hooker Dakota (Milla Jovovich), Jake learns compassion in Dakota’s bed and earns a last chance at redemption.
In these scenes, Lee reaches for a religious allegory that he can’t sustain. Dakota, well played by Jovovich (The Fifth Element), is a Mary Magdalene-like reformed prostitute who brings Jake back to Jesus. Given that symbolism, it’s a relief when Jake tells his son he was really named after Knicks Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who was nicknamed Jesus.
Lee revels in mixing street cool with full-throttle emotion. His soundtrack bristles with the rap of Public Enemy and the orchestral thunder of Aaron Copland, the late composer whose passionate film scores (Of Mice and Men, Our Town) are in line with the mythic conflict between this father and son.
“Save us, Jesus,” shout the Coney Island kids in the flashbacks that dot Lee’s film. They’re teasing the boy who outplays them, but they’re also cheering the great black hope who can make it out of the projects. Lee belongs to the church of basketball. Just watch him show the poetry of Jesus in motion, playing the schoolyard of Lincoln High School like other hoop legends before him. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed (Clockers, Girl 6) lights the hoop action with a reverence that intensifies when NBA players such as Travis Best, John Wallace, Walter McCarty and Rick Fox join Allen on this sacred ground. It’s here that the father and son of He Got Game do battle and forge a truce. And it’s here that Lee moves past the obstacles that blur his artistic vision and finds a way to do the right thing.