He Got Balls

Spike Lee and the mythopoetics of hoops.

Basketball! It’s played amid the cornfields of the Midwest by lanky boys with flaxen hair and ‘twixt the housing projects by the troubled shores of Coney Island, where otherwise powerless young African-Americans bestride the courts like colossi. Basketball! The young gods swivel, unwind, suspend themselves in air, the orange orb that spins from their fingers as splendid for an instant as the sun, until it drops–swish!--through nets like filigree to the earth from whence it sprung. Basketball! So lyrically American you can almost hear the dissonant yearnings of Aaron Copland. Wait a minute, that is Aaron Copland–a gay, white Jew on the soundtrack of a Spike Lee movie! The opening montage of He Got Game leaves no doubt as to the mythopoetic intentions of its fiercely enterprising director: Basketball, not baseball, is the pastime of the nation Lee inhabits. And He Got Game is poised to be Lee’s Great African-American Myth, a tale that encompasses the tragedies of the past, the turbulence of the present, the messianic longings of the future.

So much ambition, dynamism, visual energy, bullshit. I confess: I come to a Spike Lee “joint” with suspicion, prepared to fight off the propaganda, to sort through the messages and scrutinize the codes. The hope is always there, though, that Lee will transcend his anger and egotism and paranoia and make a film that feels organic–that doesn’t add up to another sterling specimen of the “Watch That Man Cook!” school of movie making, in which razzle-dazzle outshines content and the auteur upstages his own work. It’s a testament to Lee’s talent that, hobbled as he is by a chip on his shoulder the size of a planet and aspirations often laughably outsized, he has managed to make a film as entertaining as He Got Game. Uneven, ludicrous, but–oh man!--fun to watch. He got balls.

T he picture has one of the oldest pulp plots in the business, last used to rousing effect in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981): A convict is sprung from prison, promised liberty by an untrustworthy government in return for accomplishing a morally ambiguous task that no one else can do, given a strict deadline, and ruthlessly monitored by his ex-captors. Here the convict is Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), and his mission is to go into the projects of Coney Island, where his son Jesus (played by the 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen) is a high-school basketball player of near divine abilities. Jake must convince his son to sign a letter of intent that he’ll enroll in Big State University, the state governor’s alma mater. The obstacles, however, are formidable. Jesus is currently under siege by coaches, agents, and their unsavory minions, all of whom proffer money, cars, sex, and sundry other illegal inducements to sign with their colleges or professional teams. More of an obstacle still is the relationship between father and son, which has been poisoned by the death of the young man’s mother under circumstances that Lee keeps cunningly under wraps until the movie’s galvanic climax, in which the two men go mano a mano on the basketball court.

This is sure-fire material, and Lee structures it deftly, leaving us in the dark until the end as to why Jake–a manifestly decent, soft-spoken, cagey fellow, gorgeously underplayed by Washington–ended up in prison in the first place. Meanwhile, He Got Game teems with … stuff. Lee’s syntax can be legitimately labeled Brechtian. The narrative is incessantly interrupted by cinematic placards, exhortations, lectures about staying in school (in the form of letters from the boy’s dead mother, played by Lonette McKee), and inserts depicting the evils of drugs and alcohol. The characters are photographed iconically, as in an Eisenstein film: the spiritually crippled black dad with his modest Afro against the weather-beaten relic of a Coney Island ride, for example. Lee, who has started his own advertising firm and is noted for his hyperbolic Nike commercials, is always selling something (I pat myself on the back for titling my Village Voice review of Lee’s 1986 first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, “Birth of a Salesman”), and his work is never sharper than when his characters are selling something, too–delivering some kind of spiel as if their very existences depended on it. (Some of the spielers here include real NCAA and NBA coaches, along with a hilarious mock-religious turn by John Turturro as Coach Billy Sunday.)

S upersensitive to criticism these days, Lee has built in all kinds of protections against charges of racism and misogyny. A preening Italian-American sports agent (Al Palagonia) declares that he has no mob ties and that he resents being stereotyped, shortly before delivering a stereotypical (and very funny, Scorsese-esque) recitation of the luxuries (Ferraris, Rolexes, mansions) that await Jesus if he signs on the dotted line. Lala Bonilla (Rosario Dawson), the amusingly named Delilah dispatched to seduce the young star, gets a monologue near the end in which she justifies her actions on socioeconomic grounds. And, as a counterpoint to all the luscious, bare-breasted white girls used to tempt the hero into playing for the Man, there’s a hooker (the model Milla Jovovich, the film’s most unlikely bit of casting, made to look like a near albino) who’s exploited and knocked around by a jittery black pimp (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) so sadistic that if this film had been made by a white director he’d have been cited (most likely by Lee) as a flagrant racist outrage. As on a basketball, the seams of the movie show.

Stanley Crouch (who gleefully refers to Lee as “the diminutive director”) has pointed out that Lee resembles the hero of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a lightweight who strives to make an unwieldy epic called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Actually, this joke was first made by E. Max Frye in his underrated 1993 farce Amos &Andrew, in which a Spike-like playwright has a Broadway hit called Yo Brother, WhereArt Thou?) Lee’s use of Copland pieces such as “Lincoln Portrait,” “Rodeo,” “Appalachian Spring,” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” too transparently pump up the picture’s already pumped-up visuals, and his b-ball variation on the religioso finale of Lars von Triers’ Breaking the Waves (1996) is as daft as it was in the original.

What transforms He Got Game is Lee’s love for the sport and his intimacy with its nuances. Spike knows basketball. He filmed in and around Brooklyn’s Lincoln High, which is also the setting of Darcy Frey’s superb book The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, an equally panoramic but more grounded portrait of the game’s meaning to the denizens of the Coney Island projects. Lee might view the sport as a metaphor–as both a way out and a trap for young African-Americans–but he never lets the metaphor gum up the realities of the game. On the contrary, the metaphor intensifies the action on the court, which can seem kinetic to the point of spontaneous combustion, as pressure to perform tears families up and turns black man against black man. If, on occasion, Lee’s serpentine camera seems more active than the players he’s shooting, he knows just when to speed the play up, when to slow it down, and when to let it unfold in real time. And he gets a charming performance from Allen, who, in his acting debut, occupies his pedestal with grace and diffidence. The “diminutive director” never evinces more stature than when he’s looking up in awe.