#3 He Got Game


A basketball story that is so much more, this film virtually redefines what the quintessential ‘sports movie’ is about in every way. It’s no secret that Hollywood has always showcased the drama and theatre involved in athletics, and has forever capitalized off it’s influence by watching it translate to box office success. Yet from Hoosiers to Blue Chips, it’s also been interesting to see how sports have been portrayed in films in reflection to how they’ve evolved in real life. For basketball specifically, what was once predominated by the white majority also came with a particular style that was celebrated and revered by that same white audience, followed by a resentment for the game’s transition into a black dominated league which came with a complete new design and rhythm. Even with the beloved Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan thereafter, it was evident that there was a permeating distaste for the flash and flare within the new culture of hoops, and while unfounded it didn’t stop many for wishing the game would go back ‘to the way it was’. Therefore by the year 1996 when a polarizing director would light up his new joint called He Got Game [a clear unapologetic tribute to the modern game further inspired by the neighboring misrepresented culture of Hip Hop], it was no surprise that it wasn’t the film some wanted - yet for that same reason it was exactly the film the rest of us had been waiting for.

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No more passing the ball 15 times to get the same shot you had from the outset, the days for the high shorts and athletically challenged were behind us, and were now replaced by high flyers who can isolate and split the defense before their coach had any time to call the play. With colorful sneakers, baggy shorts, and illegible tattooes for good measure, the new league also was showcasing the best athletes in the world. The reality is that while the NBA always had transcendent talents in the league both black and white, by the 90’s the percentage of white players had become a staggering minority, essentially causing a divide with fans of the same complexion. I’m sure somewhere there’s a saying that goes something to the effect of, “you hate me because you ain’t me” and man that sentiment with it’s broken english must make a few people irate! Thus like poetry in motion Lee decided to capture that resentment with a film not only unabashed in language, but also with a story that would make many reconsider their contempt for something that they never tried to understand.

Hence without further ado the source of everyone’s envy in this film is named Jesus; as if Lee’s films weren’t controversial enough. Yet it’s not the Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, but the Jesus of the playground, the son of the imprisoned Jake Shuttlesworth. The decorated NBA player and soon to be Hall of Famer Ray Allen in his acting debut plays the role of Jesus, a senior at the renowned Lincoln High School of Coney Island and the #1 basketball recruit in the country. Jesus by all accounts has the world at his fingertips, a local celebrity desired by every coach at every level and whom can therefore name his destination; a moment that he’s been told by many will be the most important decision of his life. Yet as glamorous as it looks from the outside all is not what it seems, as in contrast to how bright his future may be is the reality that he’s running from a dark past, one that he soon finds out is too burdensome to escape.

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Denzel Washington in the most underappreciated role of his career plays Jake, the father of Jesus (and little sister Mary - played by the little girl all grown up from Crooklyn) who has been serving time for accidentally killing his wife Martha in a domestic dispute six years prior. Perhaps even more haunting is the fact that his vitriol that fateful night was not for his wife at all, yet instead was for his son who was acting resistant to his relentless training in regards to making him the best ball player he could be. The flashback scenes are incredibly poignant as it’s apparent that Jake is not an evil man, yet like most fathers he only wants the best for his son and is desperate to see him reach his full potential. Yet unlike most fathers who only share those sentiments figuratively, Jake is a man who put his thoughts into action and was willing to push his son to the brink, knowing that by instilling work ethic and will power Jesus could one day be the best basketball player in the world. And of course what makes his story so conflicting is that he was right, all in spite of the unfortunate mistake of shoving his wife to the ground who was only protecting her son, a mistake that son has vowed to never forgive him for.

Ultimately though life works in mysterious ways, and for that matter life in the movies is even more mystifying, therefore as the film uses a twist of fantasy the focus turns to the main narrative which requires some suspended belief. Essentially Jake is released from prison on a temporary basis after being given a proposition from the warden on behalf of the governor, a deal revolving around Jake being able to persuade Jesus to attend (the fictional) ‘Big State’ University. If Jake fulfills his end of the bargain, his efforts will be rewarded by the governor (an alum and investor for the school) and his prison time will be dramatically reduced. Likely with shame though understandably desperate and with nothing to lose, Jake accepts the deal and is given ten days to convince his son, that not only should he attend the governor’s school - but more precisely that his father is more than the monster who killed his mother.

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With questions of character in mind Lee is conscious enough to illustrate the flaws, or more appropriately the human elements of Jesus, in which there’s a variety of scenes that show the prodigal son is not infallible either. Take for instance when Jesus goes on a college visit to what’s presumed to be Texas University, coaxed by a potential teammate (played by another NBA talent Rick Fox) he engages in an infamous threesome that was sure to give every young athlete watching some newfound motivation, of course disregarding the fact that he has a girlfriend back home waiting for him. Then there’s the questions surrounding his circumstances and how he’s been able to take care of his sister in their apartment, an obvious cause for alarm considering he’s a high school student without a job, or as his envious uncle makes clear to him no J-O-B. The facts are that Jesus had taken money and indeed made some mistakes, of course a lot of people had made mistakes, and as the dust settles and judgment day approaches one can only hope that Jesus will look in his heart and find some forgiveness.

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Despite a rather far fetched storyline every minute of screen time is captivating to the point of irresistible, as secondary to our main protagonists the supporting cast is almost just as engaging. From Jesus’s closest childhood friend Booger played by the talented Hill Harper, to his other high school teammates played mostly by NBA talents Travis Best, Walter McCarty, and John Wallace, the film makes a profound effort in making sure it never comes up short in entertainment value. There is also the notorious Big Time Willie played by long time Lee collaborator Roger Smith, a likely drug dealer who drives Jesus and Booger to school one day and in an explosive montage outlines all ‘d’evils’ that come with fame. From sex, drugs, to the inevitable “blood sucking leeches,” there are more than a few distractions that are likely to derail Jesus if he leaves himself vulnerable, a weight and a responsibility that only time will tell if he’s strong enough to endure.

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Elsewhere there is also the hysterical cameo from Al Palagonia (the jet broker/actor who also got Lee his beloved courtside Knicks tickets in real life) as the enthusiastic agent who wants Jesus to bypass school and to go for the money. “Gold forget about it, silver forget about it,” Palagonia as Dom Pagnotti delivers more than a few memorable lines that are comedic in its realism, once again illustrating the process as a dirty game of temptation that could easily corrupt even the most innocent. Meanwhile across town Milla Jovovich is also in the business of allurement, playing a prostitute named Dakota who is disarranged herself though still able to provide some company and relief to Jake, a connection that Lee depicts as more emotional than physical. Scenes with Washington and Jovovich are in their despair some of the film’s finest moments, as Dakota’s circumstances shine light on the integrity and gentility of Jake, characterizing him as a good but broken man who is likely deserving of a second chance after all. Lastly there is Rosario Dawson who plays the sultry LaLa, the high school sweetheart who Jesus is unfaithful to and who happens to be disloyal as well, emphasizing the idea (as the Bible would tell you) that any man in Jesus position should in fact trust no one.

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Or perhaps he can trust the one man he hates the most, the man who brought him into this world. As compelling as the film is throughout, there are no scenes that trump the significance and meaning behind the key moments shared by father and son. From the first moment where Jesus condemns Mary for inviting “strangers” into the house, to the final moment when they ceremoniously play 1 on 1 for respect, the tension between them is evident and it never wavers. In retrospect it’s incredible that Washington and Allen had never worked together, or for that matter that Allen had never acted before in his life, as even though helped by a dynamic screenplay their chemistry is too extraordinary to discount.

My singular favorite moment is when Jake and Jesus walk on the Coney Island boardwalk, and for the first time Jesus begins to understand his story. As his father explains to him he wasn’t even named after Jesus from the Bible, but from his favorite hooper Earl Monroe, the Jesus of North Philadelphia who played the 2 spot for the Bullets and the Knicks. He explains to him why he pushed him so hard, why he couldn’t allow him to be weak, and of course how proud he was that he became everything he envisioned and more. Although unsaid it’s somewhat implied that Jesus was old enough to remember how he lost his mother, and years later perhaps wise enough to see that his father was reckless that night but was not a murderer. As reprehensible and unforgivable as his actions may have been, the fact is that he loved his wife and children and would do anything to bring their mother back, and since that could never happen all he has left is the chance to be their father again.

All in all there’s never been a sports film this good, as the comparative films that chose to keep it safe and be more conventional perhaps did better at the box office, but none were more superior in exemplifying the reality that they aimed to represent. In essence those films were commercially manufactured, and hardly representative of the struggle behind the scenes that is often far more substantial than simply winning the game or lifting the trophy. Therefore all the credit in the world belongs to Lee, who made a film that many anticipated would be a mockery to the game and to cinema altogether, yet instead created a masterpiece more sophisticated than all of it’s contemporaries. Who else would play Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo: Hoe Down” behind a modern day pick-up basketball game at Coney Island? Who else would would blend Aaron Copland and Public Enemy throughout a film score in the first place? The answer is no one, thus his direction and his writing is deserving of far more praise and adulation than what’s been put on record. As it stands He Got Game is one of the best of his catalogue as well as one of the best in the sports genre, and i’m certain that it will one day be catapulted in respect for its Hall of Fame status in each respective category of director, actor, and athlete; a triumph that will be sure to stand the test of time with a resume like that.

© 2016 LegacyArtsMedia

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