Warning: Critical plot details will be divulged in this post.
I love everything about Spike Lee’s masterful basketball drama, He Got Game. I love the simplicity of its plot, the virtuoso performances by unlikely actors, the original Public Enemy songs juxtaposed with Aaron Copland’s classic movements, the crisp, fluid camerawork – everything.
Although the film failed to find an audience and ignite critical praise, it still baffles me that when Lee’s films are discussed, He Got Game is often considered a noble failure. I couldn’t disagree more, in fact, I think it is one of the best, most personal films of his career.
A little background, for those unfamiliar. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is serving time in Attica prison for accidentally killing his wife. Soon into the film, the Warden advises Jake that if he can convince his son, Jesus (Ray Allen), a basketball phenom with Michael Jordan-like talent, to go to the Governor’s alma mater, Big State, then Jake will be released from prison early. Problem is, Jesus has been estranged from Jake since he went away, casually stating a few times to his friends and family that he “has no father.” Despite this, Jake is released from prison for one week (under strict supervision) to talk his son into going Big State.
For the next two hours, Lee’s film chronicles a tumultuous father and son rivalry, while detailing the highs and lows of a star on the rise. And after failing to convince Jesus to enroll in Big State, the two meet on an outdoor basketball court, where Jake proposes a finally hail Mary idea. One on one, father and son. If Jake wins, Jesus goes to Big State, if he loses, he’ll leave Jesus alone indefinitely. The terms are agreed upon and what follows is the most exhilarating six minutes of basketball ever captured on film.
The scene is filled with obvious metaphorical undertones – the teacher becomes the student, to the victor goes the spoils, and so on – but taking it at face value is worthy enough.
When the game begins, Jake is the obvious aggressor, outplaying his son with each passing point, his skill peaking at his impossible third basket, when he rolls the ball off his let forearm, before laying it up into the hoop. Slowly but surely, Jesus, who remains levelheaded and even-tempered throughout the game, as any serious athlete would, begins to wear Jake down, shooting everything and missing nearly nothing. And this is where the scene really takes off.
As Jake grows increasingly fatigued, Copland’s music begins to perfectly emulate Jake’s sense of commitment, grief, and ultimate shame, while the cinematography’s oft-implored slow motion heightens the overall sentiment.
It’s difficult to articulate the emotion that is evoked from me during this scene. The appeal for forgiveness from Jake, for example, that’s suggested in lines like, “Everything you got you got from me,” is utterly heartbreaking. Or how I am inexplicably moved by the words, “I ain’t givin’ up, I’m teachin’, brother, I’m teachin’.”
Once Jake loses the game, and literally picks himself up off the floor, he holds his arms up in a final, devastating plea for understanding. What follows is the moment that I want to draw particular attention to.
I am equipped with a particularly filthy mouth. Despite having an extensive vocabulary and healthy vernacular, I choose to curse, and curse often. Nothing is off limits, provided that no one is being offended. I say this because, I do not shy away from any spoken word, except what is commonly referred to as the “n” word. I don’t say it, I don’t sing it, I don’t like hearing it. I don’t tolerate it from friends who are trying to be funny or trying to “relate.” It’s a word that, quite simply, repulses me, which is what makes the final line of this scene so effective.
Standing defeated in the middle of the court, Jake looks at his son and tells him to, “Look out for yourself, look out for your sister. You ain’t gotta worry about me no more.” And then comes the most significant line of the film, and perhaps, the single best line of dialogue Spike Lee has ever written. “But you get that hatred out your heart, boy. Or you gonna end up just another n____. Like your father.”
Although Jesus’ facial expression doesn’t change, that line from his father clearly has an impact on him. (It should be noted that as Jesus, Ray Allen, then a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, delivers the best film performance by an athlete in the history of cinema.) As the camera gracefully tracks Jake walking away, he is soon forced to turn around and face his son directly; which is where, I think, Jesus finally accepts all that he and his father have been through.
I strongly caution that only repeat viewers watch the scene provided below. To watch it without the context of the rest of the film would be a real shame. Much like Jesus, you may get it, but all the pieces will have yet to fall into place.
Fore more of My Favorite Scenes, click here.