I saw "He Got Game" a dozen times in theaters the summer it came out. I own both the Public Enemy soundtrack and the Aaron Copland score. I even have an original "He Got Game" one sheet poster signed by both Spike Lee and Ray Allen. So it's safe to say I'm a fan of this movie. That said, I hadn't seen it in a few years, and was apprehensive about how it would hold up all these years later. After watching it again, I can safely say that it's still a really good movie, though one with some noticeable flaws.
Jake is let out of prison for a week -- with strict supervision from two parole officers -- and given the opportunity to get his son to sign a letter of intent. But Jake has to compete with all the other people in Jesus's life who are trying to get him to make a particular decision. There's Jesus's girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson), who wants him to sign with an agent and go to the NBA. Jesus's high school coach is funneling him money in the guise of a "loan" to gain influence. Jesus's uncle Bubba has been taking gifts, including cash and a Lexus, to help steer Jesus in a particular direction. There's even an on-campus visit to Tech U, where Jesus is greeted by an overly friendly coach (John Turturro) and a sex-fueled party to try and sway him.
Meanwhile, Jake struggles to reconnect with Jesus, who is still angry about the death of his mother -- a death that happened during an argument following a particularly-heated game of one-on-one between Jake and a young Jesus. Jake starts to break down the walls Jesus has built by telling him the real story of how he got his name (it's not a biblical reference but an Earl Monroe one), but things still come down to the one-week deadline. On Jake's final night out of prison, he confronts Jesus, and challenges him to a game of one-on-one. If Jake wins, Jesus signs the letter of intent, and goes to Big State. If Jesus wins, Jake goes back to prison, and never tries to connect with his son again. Jesus happily accepts the challenge and they play.
Jake, using some of the same techniques we saw him use earlier in the film while teaching a young Jesus, manages to score some points off his son, but in the end, the younger Shuttlesworth is too talented, and he earns an 11-5 victory. Jake takes the letter off the fence and hands it to Jesus, who lets it drop to the ground. Jake tells his son to get the hatred out of his heart, before being taken back to prison.
The next morning, Jesus skips out on his press conference, but has a statement read there where its announced he will attend Big State. Jake, back in prison, is told that the governor is happy with the decision, but doesn't get his parole. In one final scene, Jake tosses a basketball over the walls of Attica -- mirroring his son tossing the ball over the fence at their local court after their heated game on the night Jake murdered his wife -- and simultaneously a ball falls out of the rafters at Big State, where Jesus is shooting on an empty court.
As I stated in the intro, "He Got Game" is a really good movie, but there are a few flaws that keep it from being great. So let's address those. As you'll notice, my plot summary makes no mention of Milla Jovovich, nor the subplot involving Jake and her character, the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold." The plot makes no sense the movie and the first big scene between Jovovich and Denzel grinds some serious movie momentum to a halt.
Similarly, the two parole officers show up probably two or three times too many. We need to see them when they take Jake from Attica, when they pick him up, and probably once more in between just so we know they are in fact keeping an eye on him. But they have other appearances that do nothing to advance the movie, including a tie-in with the hooker plot that drives home its pointlessness.
(To be fair, I can see how Jake's literal impotence with the hooker can be taken as a metaphor for his "impotence" when it comes to influencing his son, but we didn't need that entire subplot to pick up on that point, when Lee did such a good job hammering it home through the interactions between Washington and Allen).
Still, there's enough in the movie that works that it overcomes those negatives. Washington gives a strong performance throughout, balancing the intensity of his character in the flashback scenes with a sort of imposed serenity in the post-jail scenes.
Allen isn't a particularly strong actor, and there are scenes where that comes across, but the more important the scene is to the movie, the better he does -- you almost get the sense that Lee let some things slide in less important scenes so they could focus on shooting the real meat of the movie. Also, it seems that every scene Allen shares with Denzel stands out, as if the Oscar winner was helping to raise the performance of the first-time actor.
The supporting cast is solid, and Rosario Dawson stands out as Lala, Jesus's girlfriend. I thought Rick Fox did an excellent job in his smarmy cameo, and casting real NBA players as Jesus's high school teammates -- then minimizing their non-basketball contributions to the movie -- was a good idea.
The music of "He Got Game" has been criticized at times, but I liked the way Lee split the soundtrack. The basketball scenes are underscored by the music of Aaron Copland, giving them this sweeping grandeur worthy of the sport itself. The non-hoops scenes get a backing from Public Enemy, in an all-original soundtrack. I know some people would have liked Lee to go all hip-hop with the soundtrack, but the split in the music mirrors the split in Jesus's -- and really Jake's -- life. Everything off the court sounds one way, but on the basketball court, everything sounds different, almost... easier, in a way.
The tagline for the movie on the poster I own is "The Father, The Son and The Holy Game", which is really what this movie is about, and when it focuses on that is when it shines.
Speaking of focus, when "He Got Game" is showing basketball, it's outstanding. Whether it's Washington or Allen just shooting alone, Allen's Lincoln High team playing in a game or just against each other, Allen playing in a pickup game... it all works.
Of course, the movie boils down to one huge basketball scene, and it's the single scene that nearly elevates "He Got Game" to another level. The final showdown between Jake and Jesus is exactly what you'd want out of the movie -- which is why its amazing to find out that it wasn't scripted quite as it happened. Originally, the script called for Jesus to beat Jake 11-0, but Lee let Washington and Allen just play out the game and filmed it.
If you watch closely, you can see how that played out. Washington scores the first basket of the game as Allen seems not to be taking things too seriously. Allen gets one back, but Washington gets two more off of him, and Allen starts to get pissed. Once Allen starts taking things seriously, Washington doesn't stand much of a chance, and he tries responding with physicality, but it's no match for Allen's pure talent.
While the 11-0 shutout would have been a bit of poetic revenge for Jesus, the way the game played out works so much better. The son, told by everyone around him how great he is, thinks he can face this challenge easily, but he underestimates his father, looking both to prove a point and teach one last life lesson. He gets to do so, with the exchange after Jesus drops the letter of intent.
"Let me tell you something: you look out for yourself. You look out for yourself, you ain't got to worry about me no more. You get that hatred out your heart, boy. You you're gonna end up just another n----r. Like your father."
Lots of people have pointed out how this movie, which came out in 1998, has some eerie foreshadowing of the lovefest over LeBron James in 2003, including the fawning quotes from coaches and NBA players, an SI cover while he was still in high school complete with religious overtones ("Jesus" and "The Chosen One") and even an expensive car registered to a family member. Who am I to deny those people that comparison?
BETTER OR WORSE THAN A LOCKOUT?
So much better. Hell, while watching the movie, I briefly forgot there WAS a lockout, which is what a good movie is supposed to do. Suck you in and make you forget about the problems of the world.