When he’s on his mark, Spike Lee is one of America’s most evocative directors. The look and sound of a well-made scene can make you nostalgic for a time and place you’ve never experienced.
Do the Right Thing put the audience right in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on the hottest day of summer in 1989. He Got Game puts us in Coney Island during a May weekend in 1998. Lee’s decision to use Aaron Copland music for the score to He Got Game is unexpected, and the results are surprisingly effective. The music takes the Coney Island story and makes it representative of the whole nation. And why not? Basketball is as American as George Washington, apple pie and Aaron Copland. The daring decision proves that Lee’s instincts are very good when it comes to evoking a time and place.
Clockers, 1995, Spike Lee, for another Lee film surprisingly similar to this one. A neophyte actor gives a good performance in a Lee movie with a great sense of place.
School’s almost out. High School kids are thinking about graduation and college. One kid in particular, Jesus Shuttlesworth (that’s “Jee-zus”, not “Hay-soos”, played pretty well by Ray Allen, an NBA athlete), has to decide which of the many scholarships he will accept. The whole country is waiting for his decision because he is the best high school basketballer in the country.
Shuttlesworth the elder (Denzel Washington) is in prison for the murder of his wife. He is promised a quick parole if he can convince his son to sign with the governor’s alma mater. He’s strapped to a radio transmitter and released to find and convince his son. Jesus gave up on his father long ago and wants nothing to do with him, making Shuttlesworth’s task all the more difficult.
There are myriad relationships in He Got Game, fraught with all sorts of almost melodramatic conflict. No two people meet without having some sort of deeper relationship. For this, Spike Lee should be praised. In lesser films, characters share the screen but exist in different universes — they trade dialogue but they don’t really talk to each other.
Not so in this film. For example, Shuttlesworth runs into some of Jesus’ friends. We know all of the characters on screen, but they have never met each other. Everyone involved is motivated by the same objective — to do what’s best for Jesus — but they interact with a certain amount of hostility and mistrust. Shuttlesworth suspects the youths of golddigging, and they know of Jesus’ hatred for his father. The characters are solid in their integrity. Nobody is played up as “the bad guy” because each person is true to what they know about Jesus. We may be frustrated that they can’t cooperate, but the characters are rightly jealous and mistrustful.
However, the relationship that matters most in this film, that of Jesus and his dad, feels contrived. The betrayed son and overbearing father are more icons than characters. Some twist in their predictable relationship would have made them more real, more human. A small deviation from the stereotypical father-son conflict could have given the movie more credibility, and could have even added an element of irony, which would have helped a lot. Instead, we quickly recognize these archetypes and then, having identified them, dismiss them.
Relationships aside, some of the characters suffer from Spike Lee’s cynicism. Bill Nunn plays one such character. Nunn (who was great as the sullen, stubborn Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing) is Jesus’ golddigging uncle, whose only apparent interest in the boy is the money he feels he is owed for bringing up the Shuttlesworth children in loco parentis. The prison warden (acting on behalf of the governor) is another. The warden and governor manipulate and toy with Shuttlesworth for the apparent sole reason that Lee wants his filmed world to be cruel.
If one insists on crediting these characters with motives, then they must be unbelievably selfish or inexplicably evil. But these characters are not handled as motivated people, they are handled as obstacles in the Shuttlesworth environment. The presence of these two-dimensional characters only draws attention to the fact that many of the other characters were much better developed. It’s an unfortunate aspect to a movie with lots of potential.
One final comment is worth mentioning. Without giving anything away, I can say that Lee made another daring but effective decision in making the final scene mystical and metaphoric (with the added pomp of Copland’s score). If I had liked the body of the movie better, the ending would have been as interesting and as perfect as the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey or the ending to Breaking the Waves. The ending was still interesting and touching, but because the movie wasn’t as grand as it set out to be, the ending felt a little self-indulgent on Lee’s part.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was excellent. Ever since then, his films have captured some of that excellence in part, but never the quality of the whole. He Got Game is great for looking at a sense of time and place and at the web of relationships that describes the community in the film, reasons enough for setting this film above many others. But gaps in other departments keep this Spike Lee Joint from being another masterpiece.