bright lights, seedy world
He Got Game (1998)
I’m pretty sure I liked this movie. It’s very well made, not one I’d rewatch, a tad frustrating, but a stunning and deeply felt Spike Lee joint. I think part of me was underwhelmed by the story - basketball is just not that serious to me! So the mania surrounding a promising student (Ray Allen) and the obsession with his college choice wasn’t compelling. (Maybe this is a thing in the real world? I don’t follow college sports. Or any. Check back with me when baseball season begins).
This b-ball wunderkind is Jesus (why!) Shuttlesworth. His little sister is named Mary (Zelda Harris aka Troy from Crooklyn). Jesus and his baby sister Mary - that was cute. But I kept asking why his parents named him that. It’s a popular Hispanic name, but never in my life have I known of anyone other than Christ with that name, pronounced the same way. My question was answered later on in the film. His parents weren’t particularly religious. He was named because of his dad’s favorite player, Earl Monroe. “You know what they call him? Jesus…cause he was The Truth.” The only basketball star I know who was nicknamed The Truth is Paul Pierce! (Also Ray Allen’s former teammate on the Celtics).
In He Got Game, New York’s governor wants Jesus to attend his alma mater Big State so badly that his father Jake (Denzel Washington) will be released from prison on parole so he can convince Jesus to go to the school. If Jesus agrees, Jake’s sentence will get reduced. Now I know this isn’t a thing in the real world! The warden (Ned Beatty of Toy Story 3 fame) suggests the idea to Jake who agrees. He’ll be closely watched by two detectives and has to wear an ankle monitor.
Jake takes credit for his son’s skills but his relentless pressure leads to tragedy. He unintentionally killed his wife during a violent confrontation with Jesus, who has never forgiven him.
Jesus is lured into a world of excess: money, sex, constant badgering and worship from coaches, fans, and groupies. John Turturro (of Cars 2 fame) has a cameo as one of the college coaches. “When I heard that you were coming to visit, I got down on my hands and knees…and I prayed to God.” Well. But that’s the whole point: everyone wants Jesus, everyone has ulterior motives. Yet he remains grounded.
This movie is full of terrible people! Jesus is maybe the only likable character. But Jake. Jake is also terrible. But he’s complex, seeking redemption, rooting for his son to be better than he is. Denzel does beautiful work. He dribbles my brain like a basketball.
I didn’t mean for this to be so text heavy. It was supposed to be short visual notes, because that’s what I liked most. There was such beautiful lighting: deep, saturated glows in a wonder wheel of colors. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie illuminated like this. But Douglas Sirk might hit me over the head with one of his technicolor palettes.
The ending is sweet and magical, unexpected for such a harsh movie. It’s no Space Jam, but I can’t fault it for that.