After directing Malcolm X, Spike Lee, along with John Singleton ('Boyz N the Hood'), became arguably the most popular and respected African American filmmaker of his time. Lee's wife, however, didn't like the fact that her husband's last original screenplay was nearly a decade ago and was vocal about it. Lee, then, decided to go back to do what originally launched him into the filmmaking world: writing and directing his own material. And although 'Malcolm X', an adaptation, was the biggest success of Lee's career, his rekindled desire to bring his own, fully original, story to the screen was the spark that led to 'He Got Game'.
The film opens with an almost five-minute montage of people playing basketball, shooting, dunking, pivoting, blocking and what have you. Spike Lee, a huge Knicks fan, believes it's worth to spend five minutes of screen time with nothing but the basketball and the music, composed of several orchestral pieces by Aaron Coplan ('Raging Bull'). The montage ends with Jesus Shuttlesworth ('Ray Allen'), in the basketball court, shooting the ball, followed by Jake Shuttleworth ('Denzel Washington'), his father, in Attica's Correctional Facility, shooting the ball as well, and one can already feel that the only connection, if any, between that father and his son is basketball. Following that intro, Spike Lee begins to utilize the old fashioned three-act structure to begin his story.
The warden calls Jake to his office, and we get to know about Jake's past and who he is through the warden's interview with him. The warden finally lays it out on the table and tells Jake what's what. The governor wants Jake to convince his son, Jesus, who is the number 1 basketball prospect in the country, to play for Big State University in exchange for a reduced sentence. Jake agrees and becomes wired by the two parole officers who will keep in touch with him. He got three days before he's sent back to Attica.
Jake starts by meeting Mary, his little daughter, first, as that, in his mind, would make it easier for him to contact his son. When his son enters the house, he doesn't look his father in the eyes and scolds his sister for allowing a "stranger" in. Throughout the film, the father, during his numerous and brief encounters with his son, tries to convince Jesus to go to Big State, but with no success. Their past is so dark that no light could break through.
In the best sequence of the film, during the last night of Jake's parole, he plays a defining basketball game in his final hours as a free man. If he wins, Jesus goes to Big State. If Jesus wins, Jake goes back to Attica. The stakes are high and as Jake plays and scores some points he begins to let go and shifts from wanting a reduced sentence to wanting forgiveness from Jesus (pun intended) and his murdered wife. He accepts his fate. He chooses the worse in hope of gaining the better later on. Only when they were separated again did he and his son connect more than they ever did.
To call 'He Got Game' bad would be an understatement and to call it good would be euphemistic. The film pushes some buttons in the human nature and emotions but you never feel a solid film. Overlong at parts and extremely short at others, the film tries to find its rhythm during its two-hour running time and doesn't quite get it right, but with all its flaws, it came out watchable, if intriguing, at parts.
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