Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Spike Lee’s got a new movie out this week, and by most accounts it’s a humdinger. I haven’t seen BlacKkKlansman yet, but I’m rooting for it, partly because I like it when directors whose work I don’t esteem very highly turn around and surprise me. I mention that very phenomenon in my 1998 review of Lee’s He Got Game, which I think is one of his best films—maybe his best, actually. It’s certainly superior to the Lee-Denzel Washington collaboration on Malcolm X, a mess of a film that has accrued considerable prestige since its release. This review was written for Film.com, which means it’s vanished into the ether, unless you can get the Internet Wayback Machine to work for you.
He Got Game
It sounded like a wrong turn for Spike Lee: a movie about basketball (too easy), with a central character named Jesus (too allegorical), combining the music of Public Enemy and Aaron Copland (too cute), starring Denzel Washington (too obvious). For those of us who have decidedly mixed feelings about Lee’s movies, He Got Game had all the earmarks of the director’s most self-indulgent tendencies.
I like it when filmmakers surprise me, and as surprises go He Got Game is something close to triumphant. It begins wobbily, with the Americana of Copland’s stirring orchestral music underscoring a series of shots of different teenage kids, in heartland and ghetto, playing hoops in their playgrounds or backyards. Is this a movie, or one of Lee’s Nike commercials? The sequence ends, as the music soars into a crescendo, with a remarkable shot (in both the movie and basketball sense) of girls and boys playing on an outdoor court, as an elevated train passes through the background. That had me sitting up in my seat.
The rushed opening scenes of the movie proper introduce us to Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), a bitter convict. The warden (Ned Beatty) has an unusual proposal: the governor will commute Jake’s sentence if Jake will convince his son to attend the governor’s college alma mater. This matters because Jake’s son is Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen, a second-year player for the Milwaukee Bucks), merely the top high school prospect in the country. Jake, released on furlough to his old Coney Island stomping grounds, has seven days to talk his son — who happens to be estranged from his father — into enrolling at the school.
The simplicity of this idea provides the arc and the anguished ethical dilemma of an Arthur Miller play: At what price can a father sell out the dreams of his son? Yet Lee, rightly I think, uses this strong theme not to squeeze out the obvious agony of Jake’s situation but as a rack upon which he can hang the various issues and details of Jake’s milieu.
Thankfully, Lee doesn’t spend all that much time with the temptations and corruptions of college athletics (most of the audience was not born yesterday), but he’s razor-sharp when he does, as when Jesus considers a casual bribe from his high school coach, or gets a tour of expensive cars with an obnoxious agent. Most of the time, Jesus is dealing with his ambitious girlfriend (Rosario Dawson, from Kids) or trying to avoid his cruel father.
Jake, installed in a fleabag apartment, circles slowly around his objective. In his spare time, he comes to know the battling couple next door, a hooker (Milla Jovovich) and her pimp (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). Here’s another surprise: the hesitant relationship between Jake and this battered girl should be the stuff of cliché, but somehow Lee and the actors get around it. Their moody dialogue scenes are generally accompanied by the melancholy of Copland’s music, and Denzel Washington is so into the core of Jake’s frustrated character that he keeps a true line throughout; there’s no effort to make Jake a nice guy, or a misunderstood hero.
There is a sadness about this movie that survives the flashy NBA material (lots of cameos by the Jordans, Barkleys, and Pippens of the world) and the overstated final sequence, which finds Lee overreaching by half. Malik Hassan Sayeed’s dense cinematography feeds this sadness, whether the camera is surveying the dark interiors of Jake’s seedy room or capturing the diffuse sunlight of a pier at the seaside.
He Got Game isn’t perfect, but there is something new here in Spike Lee’s work; the hectoring tone is mostly gone, and so is his here’s-a-snazzy-camera-angle-for-its-own-sake approach to composition. (Also gone is Spike Lee, as there’s no acting role for the auteur here.) Instead of punching the high melodrama of the piece, Lee actually throws away some of the big revelations in the middle of conversations, keeping his focus on character rather than story. Twelve features into his still-young career, Lee has earned his all-star status, for ask yourself this question: Who else would have, could have, made this movie?
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.