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He Got Game/B+,B+

Touchstone/1998/136m/WS 1.85

     Maybe the next best thing to playing basketball for Spike Lee is making a movie about the game. He Got Game is filled with the writer/director’s love of basketball. Some of the work is simply magnificent, but Spike is too much the playground player; he can’t contain his showboat style. When there’s a message playing cleanly in the subtext, the director must make one more spin or turn before going to the basket, robbing some of the natural beauty from the perfect moment. Still, this is probably Spike Lee’s best film after Malcolm X and it is that love of basketball that dominates the film and brings a certain purity to the main characters.
     Lee peoples his movie with a variety of characters, most of whom are looking to profit from prodigy basketball star Jesus Shuttlesworth. College coaches looking to lure him to their schools, his high school coach trying to take advantage of his loyalty, his family looking to share in the potential financial windfall. It’s a veritable circus with Jesus the main event. But the most interesting relationship is between Jesus and his father Jake, as played by Denzel Washington.
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Father and son on opposite sides of the screen.©Touchstone

     Washington and Spike Lee are a top-notch team in their third film together. I suppose Washington is the actor every director would like to draft for his next project, but Lee does right by him. This time Denzel does not dominate the screen the way he did in Malcolm X, but supplies the fuel for the story to find heart. Denzel plays Jake Shuttlesworth, the estranged father of high school superstar Jesus. Jake, serving time for the accidental manslaughter of his wife, gets a chance to reduce his sentence if he can convince Jesus to select the Governor’s favorite school as the platform for his basketball heroics. Jake must find a way to break through to his son in the few short days before he must declare his decision as to what school he will attend. Jake taught the tough lessons of the basketball court to his son, unmercilously pushing him to excel, but the relationship between father and son suffered the consequences. Now together they must explore that relationship and find out what it all means in a one on one game of school yard basketball.
     Ray Allen, a forward for the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA has the tough chore of bringing Jesus to life, and this he does with the ease of an uncontested slam dunk. Playing on the same court with the likes of Denzel Washington, the basketball player is never intimidated. Others providing able support to He Got Game are Bill Nunn as the hungry uncle,  Milla Jovovich as a strung out prostitute, and Jim Brown as a tough parole officer.
     The photography soars like basketball players floating to the basket on an interminable drive, suspending for a millisecond, stretching it, embellishing it with another dimension of beauty. Again, the love of the game shines through time and again. The montage work set to the classical compositions of Aaron Copeland merge spendidly with the images. One could believe these contemporary American works were written for the film. Even Farefare for a Common Man rises unexpectedly from the score selection adding inspiration to the many inspired moments in He Got Game.
     Lee’s vision is transferred to DVD quite nicely. The bright hued colors are lively and tightly controlled. Images are mostly sharp in various lighting conditions. In the red light district where the senior Shuttlesworth spends his nights in his brief sojourn from prison, the dominant soft red lighting looks very good. The music lacks some of the power that I have experienced listening to the music of Copeland on a high end stereo system. Farfare’s horns are slightly reserved and the kettle drums don’t quite fill the space the way one might hope for. But it is a rare treat to have this music accompanying a film and the surround system is actively used to impart space and air around the music.

filmhead1.gif (2331 bytes)  1998 Stuart J. Kobak , all rights reserved.