Spike Lee’s homage to the game that he loves is a passionate father and son story that hits all the right marks, most of the time. Shot in less than a month, the film was famous for Lee’s choice to use a real NBA player in the lead role of Jesus Shuttlesworth. After several considerations, he landed on (then rookie) Ray Allen.
Allen, a much better ball player than actor, is one of the weaker links of the film, but his natural instincts do help embody a stubbornness and immaturity that would define his character - a high school student in the midst of choosing which college too attend, or indeed, jump straight into the NBA after a phenomenal high school career. To put his acting under even more scrutiny, his opposite is Denzel Washington, in imposing form as his father, Jake, a convict released for a week to convince his estranged son to join Big State university in order to have his sentenced reduced. Jake however is in jail for accidentally killing his wife, Jesus’ mother. To say their relationship is strained is to say the least. Jesus is unsure of what to do, and the appearance of his hated father does not help matters, nor that Jesus is being touted as a saviour of the game - hype he can’t help but start to believe. Rounding out the cast are Lee regulars, such as Bill Nunn and John Turturro, but also Rosario Dawson as Jesus’ girlfriend and Zelda Harris as his younger sister. Throughout too, are cameos from basketball greats past and present.
Spike Lee loves basketball. The warm opening credits of kids shooting hoops underscored by an uplifting composition make it obvious. The orchestral score throughout is possibly unconventional considering the urban nature of the film, but it works well to serve the drama, depth and emotion. Punctured at certain moments by thumping Public Enemy songs, the overall construction of He Got Game is unique to the director and it is a credit to him using a lot of his specific elements. Not to mention the basketball action (which is less than one might expect) is photographed beautifully. A scene towards the end where father and son finally play one on one is exceptional.
At 134 minutes it does drag at times with the director having trouble putting in closure, involving some slightly unexpected moments. Scenes involving a hooker (played by Milla Jovovich) and Jake are obviously there to widen the man‘s character, but this storyline seems tacked on and could have been left out to keep the film more streamlined. Jake is no saint, so trying to make him one felt inappropriate. This film has also been accused for flaunting misogyny, but I have always believed that is unfounded.
Compared to the likes of Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, He Got Game is not quite up to the director’s best standard, but to me, he is a prolific, yet unpredictable filmmaker and it stands as one of my favourites of his. Despite it’s flaws, this is still a solid work and one of the best films involving the sport ever made, especially considering it delivers some prophetic moments about the institution that is the profession in the real world.