Spike Lee's He Got Game opens with slo-mo shots of boys and girls all over the United States dribbling between their legs and behind their backs, faking left and driving right, or faking right and driving left, then pulling back for a nothing-but-net jump shot from 20 feet out, or taking it to the hoop for a reverse slam-dunk, or simply twirling the orange spheres on their outstretched fingers, like God playing around with a planet. On the soundtrack, all-American chords from Aaron Copland's "John Henry" suggest that basketball is a part of our mythos, an outlet for our hopes and dreams. At heart, we are a nation of point guards, power forwards and centers as tall as Paul Bunyan. An urban fable, He Got Game is also about the other side of basketball--the recruiting violations, the sports agents, the commodification that has kids killing each other for a pair of Air Jordans. With his Nike commercials, Lee himself has played a role in that commodification, of course, and maybe that's why he prefers to focus his attention on a father-son story set on Coney Island (where Lee went to high school). Appearing in a movie for the first time, the Milwaukee Bucks' Ray Allen stars as Jesus Shuttlesworth, the number-one high school prospect in the country. And Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, Jesus' father, who taught Jesus everything he knows about the game. When the story begins, Jesus and Jake are shooting hoop--Jesus on a Coney Island recreational court, Jake in the prison yard at Attica. A convicted felon, Jake is six years into a 15-year sentence for accidentally killing his wife in a fight, and though he's managed to forgive himself, Jesus hasn't forgiven him, and perhaps never will. But God, not to mention the sport of basketball, works in mysterious ways. The governor of New York, who's a big b-ball fan, wants Jesus to play for his alma mater, Big State. Jake is told that if he can convince Jesus to sign a letter of intent with Big State, he may find that his sentence has been reduced. And he's given a get-out-of-jail-for-one-week card to get the job done. The problem is, Jesus won't talk to him, won't even acknowledge that Jake's his father. Plus, with every college in the country after him, it would be a step down for Jesus to settle for Big State. Lee shows us the kinds of things that get dangled in front of topnotch college prospects--the stacks of cash, the shiny new cars, the women who are paid to love a man in a uniform. And, if Jesus merely dips his toes in the freebie pool rather than does a jackknife off the high dive, that's because he's his father's son. He wants what the world owes him--nothing more, nothing less. Lee may have miscalculated in making his Jesus without sin; it almost turns the movie into an after-school special. Luckily, Jake sins enough for both of them.
With his heavy-shouldered former-athlete's body, Washington gives Jake a gravity that the character may not have had in Lee's script. And he soon has us praying that Jake will redeem himself for having literally and figuratively pushed his family too hard. Still, we're left a little confused about how we're supposed to feel about Jake--i.e., how Lee feels about him. Is Jake a good guy? A bad guy? Both? How so? Lee doesn't resolve all the emotional issues he puts into play, which is either true to life or clumsy filmmaking. Either way, He Got Game does a good job of showing us what can happen to a family's hoop dreams when their life gets reduced to a game of one-on-one between father and son.