Products of the 'Hood

Face/Off: Denzel Washington and Ray Allen in Spike Lee's He Got Game

He Got Game
area theaters, starts Friday

The "battle royal" of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1947) has young black men pitted against each other in a mad scramble for gold coins and a college scholarship. Performing for a leering audience of white big shots, the competitors are wet and the playing field electrified. Spike Lee's He Got Game takes up the image where Ellison leaves off. Lee's battle royal follows high-school basketball star Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks) as he negotiates conflicting expectations that his skills will "save" his team, his family, and his community. Likewise, the director advertises his own ambiguities about basketball, commerce, culture, fatherhood, and, per usual, females.

In the week before he must decide whether to attend college or play for the NBA, Lee's Jesus of Coney Island faces a pack of wolves in sheep's clothing, all of whom want a piece of the action. There's the 'hood's Big Time Willie (Roger Guenveur Smith), the Lexus-driving Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn), a fictional coach (John Turturro) and some real-life ones (playing themselves), and the unholy father (Denzel Washington) who, forsaking Jesus, demands the ultimate sacrifice: If his son signs with the governor's beloved Big State, Pops will be sprung from jail. Basically, Lee, a longtime basketball junkie, turns Hoosiers on its head by fusing the funky look of Cooley High and the somber morals of Hoop Dreams, setting the film in the multicolored atmosphere of Coney Island's carnival rides and housing projects.

No less than his floating character tracking-shots and quick-cut flurries of talking heads, Lee has turned gender troubles into another element of his signature style. In He Got Game, the director makes creative use of his inability (or is it his unwillingness?) to develop complex women characters, conveniently situating Jesus's murdered mother (Lonette McKee) in the flashback past, where she becomes the remote martyr of her son's memory. Jesus's girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) fares better, if only because her calculated opportunism comes with a few sound reasons. As for white women, let's just say that Lee's been working on his offensive game plan. From the forlorn hooker with a heart of gold (Milla Jovovich) to the "white college bitches" who "travel in packs" and wash players' dirty drawers on command, not to mention the big-breasted bunny-demons whom recruiters offer as Jesus's last temptation, it's all about booty. Conversely, as one player explains that "the sistas make you work too hard," black women are shown as disapproving or difficult--that is, when they're shown at all.

With Moms out of the melee, Lee fixates on Father, following a trend he developed most clearly in Malcolm X and Get On the Bus. Indeed, Lee creates a patrilineal mythology: Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) experiences symbolic labor pains after being ordered by the prison warden to "deliver" his son to the governor. So, while He Got Game exposes the corrupt hustle surrounding basketball, it revolves around the one-on-one father-son feud, epitomized by two dramatic court scenes wherein father and son face off. In turn, Jake and Jesus symbolize the two populations in which black men are most often represented in the media: the prison yard and the basketball court. Clearly, the convicted father is talking less about basketball than black men in general when he says, "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him."

Militant masculinity aside, Lee seems to have traded Malcolm X's frankly oppositional politics for a quieter form of subversion. Most strikingly, the soundtrack pairs populist composer Aaron Copland's cultural nationalism with that of Public Enemy--coupling the Americana of Copland's "Our Town" with PE's "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps." Whether staking claim to an omni-American cultural tradition represents creative resistance or patriotic sell-out still depends on your perspective, of course. But, by combining the local focus of the "city symphony" tradition with his film's epic scope, Lee is surely commenting on American identity. No wonder the opening panorama sweeps across the nation's courts from cornfields to Cabrini Green, passing Coca-Cola billboards and satellite dishes along the way. Wherever you find it, this game is a product--and vice versa.

Lee's uneasy relationship to mass culture certainly isn't limited to his work in the studio system: As a longtime Nike auteur and budding ad exec (his Spike-DDB agency on Madison Avenue represents Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's, and Soft-Sheen), he's certainly been playing the game. But is it irony or product placement when Jake spends his last $150 on the newest Air Jordans? How does Lee reconcile his entrepreneurial pursuits with Public Enemy's rage against the machine and its "sneaker pimps"? And how critical can the filmmaker be if, as a season ticket-holding Knicks fan in the B-ball battle royal, he's got the best seat in the house?

 
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