On this day in history, May 1, 1998, Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” was released in theaters; a remembrance in celebration…
Some films deserve a second reading. In Spike Lee’s “He Got Game,” basketball is reinterpreted into a difficult family tradition, one that’s passed down by way of pain and loss, but exists as the lifeline for the relationship between a father and a son. Whether that relationship will reach a state of reconciliation fuels the narrative of the film. Can a father who used the sport to dominate and control his son, now use it to love him, to reenter his life?
It’s a question that Lee’s script sets up well, and in doing so, provides deft commentary on the world of race and intercollegiate athletics; how sports quickly become interchangeable with the personal worth of black players, and whether that’s okay. In the film, Jake Shuttleworth, played by Denzel Washington, serves time in prison for violence committed out to his obsession for the sport, and a need for his son to inherent the tireless obsession. Instead, his son Jesus Shuttlesworth (played convincingly by basketball player Ray Allen), grows to despise him for it.
Basketball is painful in this film, but it’s also the key to economic advancement and eventual freedom. To watch this film in conjunction with regular sports broadcast is to glimpse the underside of what is usually considered an enjoyable pastime. But that pastime comes with tough questions. What are the worlds and lives behind the basketball players on the court? How has the sport imprinted itself into their sense of family, or their sense of self? What meanings has it taken on in their lives? How have they been treated, or mistreated, based on their athletic “worth” or lack thereof?
In Lee’s attention to the dynamics of this father-son relationship and its reliance on the sport, he forces us to consider the game as an extension of life, something that is necessary, never optional or leisurely. Practice and mastery is a given, and scenes where Jake forces a young Jesus to continue playing even as he’s tired and exhausted, illustrate this. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes, Jake initiates an argument with Jesus during dinner that ignites into a fatal, irreversible act. The scene is full of discomfort, and a feeling that Jake’s tirade has reached a chaotic peak. Here, the film’s stakes are set.
When Jake is given the task to convince Jesus to attend the same college as his prison warden in order to get a reduced sentence, we wonder how he’ll do it. How will he use basketball to fix a broken connection, to love, and to reenter when pain and anger exists? To watch Washington and Allen reunite under these circumstances is both fascinating and difficult, and asks the audience if they too, would forgive? Basketball is the gift and the curse, the lifeline and the ending of life, and the film explores this rich subtext in ways that make it one of Lee’s stronger films to date.
With a previous announcement that there may be a sequel to the film, these questions and observations remain timely.