He Got Game: Spike Lee’s Baseball Drama, Starring Denzel Washington

After two small-scale, independently-made films (Girl 6 and Get on the Bus) and a worthy documentary (4 Little Girls), Spike Lee plays again the major league with He Got Game, a contemporary baseball drama with comic overtones, centering on the turbulent relationship between a convict-father and his extraordinarily gifted son.

Lacking the moral indignation, outrage and militant politics that have marked Lee’s earlier work, this vibrantly colorful film is tad too soft at the center, arguably the most mainstream movie to be directed by Lee.

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 NBA Milwaukee Bucks superstar, as his resentful son, He Got Game may prove to be Lee’s most commercial film in years, with its broad canvas of family drama, black youth, college life, and above all the obsession with baseball in American culture appealing to diverse segments of the movie-going public.

Almost in diametric opposition to Get on the Bus (released by Columbia but financed by black patrons), which was too purposeful and didactic, He Got Game, based on Lee’s own screenplay, is at once a more personal, more relaxed and more compassionate film. Though grounded in a particular African-American context–the movie is set in Coney Island–the story is meant to provide a more 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 ago. 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 very specific task: He must persuade his estranged son Jesus (Allen), the nation’s number one high-school basketball player, to sign with Big State, the Governor’s alma mater.

Action then switches to Jesus, an extremely decent and conscientious boy 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). Parentless, and without a 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 or immediately begin a financially lucrative career as an NBA player.

A number of satirical montages illustrate the enticing and competing packages offered to Jesus by coaches and educators from every school in the country. These sequences recall the montage in She’s Gotta to Have it, which poked fun at the silly come-on strategies used by black men in their sexual pursuit of women.

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, in the next seven fateful days, father and son face a series of emotional confrontations, during which mutual accusations are being made. Protesting his very name (which serves as a subject for a number of good jokes), Jesus charges his dad with an irresponsible behavior. For his part, Jake claims that he’s the one who really motivated Jesus to become the genius sports figure he is, ceaselessly training him and, on occasion, pushing too hard. A flashback explains the circumstances under which Jesus’s mother (the lovely Lonette McKee) was accidentally killed by Jake during a violent family feud.

Lee shrewdly dissects the exploitation of student-athletes in America and the various dimensions of baseball as a popular sports, national myth–and a multi-billion dollar business. Since Jesus is perceived as a “national asset” worth of million 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 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 baseball, he doesn’t fully explore them. If it were not for the central family melodrama, He Got Game could have easily been conceived as a savage farce about the commercial debasement of sports and the obsession with celebrity in American life.

Obviously, Lee is more interested in the father-son tumultuous interaction, which underscore pic’s chief moral concern: the ability to truly forgive someone who has caused harm and injustice. As writer, Lee constructs intriguing profiles for both father and son, suggesting, for example, that Jake was not good enough to make it as a pro, that he used a knee injury as an excuse to transfer his desire onto his son. In its good and touching moments, pic recalls other father-son mellers, such as The Great Santini, particularly in the fierce rivalry displayed in the court, and In the Name of the Father, in the intense, stressful conditions under which father and son must face and get to know one another.

Ultimately, the scope may be too wide 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. Prominent among them is a sub-plot in which Jake befriends a neighboring prostitute, Dakota (Fifth Element’s sexy Milla Jovovich), who’s physically abused by her pimp (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). In a touch that recalls Taxi Driver, Jake throws himself into rescuing Dakota from his destructive clutches.

Though Lee’s script is sprawling and uneven, the treatment of women and ethnic minorities is more generous and less stereotypical than before. As always, Lee’s dynamic direction compensates for the conceptual and script shortcomings, endowing the picture with a sharply 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 for this type of story.

Washington renders a 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 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 youthful look and genuine 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.