After two small-scale, independently made films (“Girl 6” and “Get on the Bus”) and a worthy documen-tary (“4 Little Girls”), Spike Lee again plays in the big arena with “He Got Game,” a contemporary bas-ketball drama with comic overtones, centering on the turbulent relationship between a convict-father and his extraordinarily gifted athlete son. Lacking the moral indignation and militant politics that marked Lee’s earlier work, this film is too soft at the center, and arguably the director’s most mainstream movie.
Toplined by a deglamorized Denzel Washington (in his third teaming with Lee) as the errant father desperate for forgiveness, and the immensely engaging Ray Allen, the Milwaukee Bucks basketball star, as his resentful son, “He Got Game,” with its broad canvas of family drama, black youth, college life and, above all, the obsession with basketball in American culture, is likely to appeal to diverse segments of the moviegoing public.
Almost in diametric opposition to the didacticism of “Get on the Bus,” new pic, scripted by Lee, is a more personal, more relaxed and more compassionate film. Though grounded in a particular African-American context, the story is meant to provide a humanistic view of intergenerational strife and the universal need for reconciliation and forgiveness.
Yarn begins in prison, where Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) serves time for a crime committed six years earlier. Summoned to see the harsh Warden Wyatt (a terrific Ned Beatty), he’s temporarily paroled with the promise of a commuted sentence. All this sounds good, until he learns that his future freedom depends on the successful accomplishment of a specific task: He must persuade his estranged son, Jesus (Allen), the nation’s No. 1 high school basketball player, to sign with Big State, the governor’s alma mater.
Action then switches to Jesus, an extremely decent and conscientious teen who, following the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father, had to raise himself and his younger sister, Mary (“Crooklyn’s” Zelda Harris). A flashback explains the circumstances under which Jesus’ mother (the lovely Lonette McKee) was accidentally killed by Jake during a violent family feud. Without much-needed authoritative guidance, Jesus is left alone to make the biggest decision of his life: Accept a scholarship from one of the numerous colleges interested in him, or immediately begin a lucrative career in the NBA. A number of satirical montages illustrate the enticing and competing packages offered to Jesus by coaches and educators from every school in the country.
To increase suspense, drama is framed with a deadline of one week, at the end of which Jake either achieves his mission or goes back to jail.
Indeed, over the next seven fateful days, father and son face a series of emotional confrontations. Protesting his very name (which serves as the subject of a number of good jokes), Jesus charges his dad with irresponsible behavior. For his part, Jake claims that he’s the one who really motivated Jesus to become the brilliant athlete he is, ceaselessly training him and, on occasion, pushing too hard.
Lee shrewdly dissects the exploitation of student athletes in the U.S. and the various dimensions of basketball — popular sport, national myth, multibillion-dollar business.
Since Jesus is perceived as a “national asset” worth millions of dollars, everybody around him wants a piece of the pie. This includes his naive sister, who dreams of a better life; his greedy uncle and aunt (Bill Nunn and Michele Shay) and his not entirely innocent girlfriend, Lala (Rosario Dawson).
In one of the film’s comic highlights, Jesus visits a rich campus, where he is courted by beautiful white girls and, under peer pressure, finds himself in bed with two women. While Lee certainly touches on the satirical and even grotesque elements of big-time basketball, he doesn’t fully explore them. If not for the central family melodrama, “He Got Game” easily could have been conceived as a savage farce about the commercial debasement of sports and the obsession with celebrity in American life.
But Lee is more interested in the tumultuous father-son interaction, which underscore pic’s chief moral concern: the ability to truly forgive someone. As a writer, Lee constructs intriguing profiles of father and son, sugesting, for example, that Jake was not good enough to make it as a pro, and that he used a knee injury as an excuse to transfer his ambition to his son.
Ultimately, Lee aims too high, and the scope may be too large for one picture. In addition to a neatly compromised ending that strains too much to please, there are several sequences that diffuse the story and occasionally drag it down.
Though Lee’s script is sprawling and uneven, the treatment of women and ethnic minorities is more generous and less stereotypical than in his previous pics. As always, Lee’s dynamic direction compensates for the conceptual shortcomings, endowing the picture with a vigorous and flamboyant craftsmanship, assisted by frequent lenser Malik Hassan Sayeed, production designer Wynn Thomas and others in the capable crew.
As impressively grand as Aaron Copland’s folk music is, it often calls too much attention to itself; songs from the group Public Enemy serve more effectively as soundtrack.
The reliable Washington renders solid work in an uncharacteristic role, one that may not be as ambitious as the title part in “Malcolm X” but is certainly more arduous and rewarding than the lead in “Mo’ Better Blues.” But the real revelation here is newcomer Allen, who’s perfectly cast as the hurting, good-natured son who needs to make peace with his father. Extremely tall and broad-shouldered, he gives an utterly convincing performance that draws on his youth and vulnerability.
With the exception of John Turturro in a bravura cameo as a campus coach, all the other coaches are played by real-life personalities.