Tuesday, May 8, 2018

20 Years Later: HE GOT GAME

by Adam Riske
Once again, Spike Lee leaves it all out on the court.

I love that when you’re watching a Spike Lee movie, you know you’re watching a Spike Lee movie. They reflect so much of their author. His style is truly singular. He Got Game was no exception and provided an insider view into basketball, long known to be one of the filmmaker’s great joys in life. As a long-time New York Knicks fan, Spike Lee runs enough in basketball circles that I never question the insight he gives is borne out of practical knowledge. He understands the process of college recruitment for young basketball players, and dramatizing that process is part of what makes He Got Game such a gripping movie to watch. We know the story about dreamers aiming for their shot in the pros, but we don’t often see the path of those who are gifted with athletic ability and then must drown out the noise around them. In He Got Game, it comes in the form of family, coaches, fellow players, girlfriends, university boosters, agents and hustlers. They all want a lift based off someone else’s gift. Favors are given without a request for them and loyalties are questioned. It obscures the truth of the matter that a top basketball recruit’s decision about their professional future is ultimately up to them.
The basketball recruit in He Got Game is Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by now-retired NBA star Ray Allen). Jesus’ decision on his basketball future is the hook of the story. The heart of it is his reconciliation with his father Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), who was out of the picture for years until now. During a night of angry drinking, Jake pushed and accidentally killed Jesus’s mother and has been incarcerated for five years for manslaughter. The Governor of the State of New York is a big basketball booster for a fictional state university for whom he very much wants Jesus to play. Via the prison warden (a nice character part from the always welcome Ned Beatty), Jake is granted a seven-day work release to convince Jesus to attend Big State with the promise of a reduced sentence if he’s successful. Jesus hates Jake (who was an abusive taskmaster to young Jesus), so Jake’s return is not welcome. Over the course of the week leading up to Jesus’ decision, Jesus and Jake bare their souls (often unpleasantly) and create a new status quo in their relationship.
He Got Game played better for me in 2018 than it did in 1998, even though I liked it back in its original release. Denzel Washington is that rare actor who can make any character three-dimensional and still maintain his movie star charisma. He’s terrific in this movie and displays one of his greatest attributes, which is to take audience favor and fuck with it; making you root for an ugly character and at the same time hate yourself for giving him a pass because he’s played by Denzel Washington. Robert De Niro is the only other actor I can think of who can do this as well as Washington. There’s always a chance that with one slight misstep, a truly distasteful guy can take over. Back in 1998, I thought Ray Allen was a bit stiff, but now I’m much more a fan of his performance in the film. He must act alongside not just Washington, but also Spike Lee’s company of regulars (including Bill Nunn, the amazing Roger Guenveur Smith and John Turturro, among others) and he holds his own. That’s very impressive for a natural athlete making his film debut. He might not have the wattage of a film star, but he’s entirely credible in a role suited exactly for him. Rosario Dawson is fantastic here in an early performance as Jesus’ scheming high school girlfriend. It’s a stereotypical gold digger character, but she’s given a great speech (that the actress nails) in the third act that makes you totally empathize with her situation. The only section of the film that doesn’t work for me is a subplot involving Jake and a prostitute named Dakota (played by Milla Jovovich), to whom Jake is living next door during his release. The subplot feels unnecessary even if it’s logical that Jake would want female companionship after being without it in prison for the past several years. It makes the movie feel shaggy. It’s not too big of a deal, though. I like most Spike Lee movies and most of them have this quality.
My favorite part of He Got Game on this re-watch is a sort of invisible truth that hovers over the movie. It’s something I became keenly aware of after an episode of this season’s Atlanta called “Teddy Perkins.” The thesis of that episode is that the pain inflicted by fathers on their children is a tragedy even if great art resulted from that discipline. He Got Game is (as I see it) a reversal of that in a way. When we see Jake teaching Jesus basketball the hard way in flashbacks, Jesus is good for his age but doesn’t appear to be on track to become the most recruited high school basketball player in the country. So how did Jesus become that? What changed? Jake went away and Jesus did it on his own. But would Jesus have become who he is if Jake didn’t push him towards basketball in the first place? If so, what is Jake owed for that if anything? It’s a complex situation and it’s treated as such in the film. In the end (no spoiler), Jesus and Jake have grown over the course of their week back together and we got to eavesdrop on this pivotal time frame.
I’m a very big fan of Spike Lee’s Touchstone Pictures era (era) that began here and continued with the amazing and underrated Summer of Sam (which I’d love to podcast one day) and the deeply felt and brilliant 25th Hour. These films are (like many of his earlier films) gripping stories along with fascinating sociological takes on Lee’s home of New York City. In 25th Hour, it was the city in the wake and shock of September 11, 2001; in Summer of Sam, it was the pressure cooker of the city bursting at the seams during a sweltering summer of terror and here in He Got Game, it’s the city’s rich basketball identity and the contradictory nature of Coney Island – there for short-term amusement but less amusing if you’re staying there long-term without a way out. If you haven’t seen He Got Game, check it out. It comes with my highest recommendation. It’s a true gem in a long line of great films directed by Spike Lee. He made me think as an adult even when I saw his films as a youth, and I’m thankful for it.


  1. I'd like to give a shout out to the film's soundtrack, which combines rap with the music of Aaron Copeland to great effect. And that opening montage is a great sequence, turning basketball into visual poetry.

  2. This movie had always meant a great deal to me. It would take too long to explain and possibly some therapy on my part, but the themes and dynamics that Spike captures here speak very personally to me, even though on the surface the situations are not the exact ones I dealt with.

    I think somehow Lee is able to do this with his films, if you allow them. They often have a realist/dream quality that I find hard to summarize.

    That said I would love for you to do a Summer Of Sam or 25th Hour or He Got Game podcast.

    And finally I wish Denzel and Spike would team up again, I think they bring out the best in eachother.

  3. Great article Adam. I love this movie. Re-watched a few years ago and it had lost none of its power. I remember reading at the time of release that they debated about getting an actor and teaching how to play ball versus getting a ball player and teaching him to act. Ray Allen is great in the movie. Bizarre to think that this was considered Spike Lee Lite at the time. No way. For me, this is one of his best.

    1. I think people just take Spike Lee for granted.