Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With March Madness in full swing, and a Criterion Blu-ray upgrade of Hoop Dreams dropping in a week, we highlight some of the best movies about basketball.
Note: This originally ran in 2015.
He Got Game (1998)
Spike Lee is a fan of professional basketball. It’s possible that he’s better known in some circles for his long-term courtside attendance of New York Knicks games than for his films, the last few of which have been little-seen by mass audiences. It’s fascinating, then, that Lee’s basketball movie He Got Game contains no real athletic competition: not pro, not college, not even high school, where all-star Jesus Shuttlesworth (real-life player Ray Allen) is running out the clock as colleges court him for his enormous talent. This is a movie about sport as a way out, not glory for its own sake. Jesus isn’t just considering where he’ll go to school, but how to best whisk himself and his little sister out of their Coney Island apartment and secure their future.
They live in Coney Island without parents (an aunt and uncle hover nearby) because their mother is dead and their father, Jake (Denzel Washington), is in prison. Jake comes back into their lives when he’s granted temporary release with the promise of a reduced sentence if he can convince Jesus to choose Big State University for his college career. Because this is a Spike Lee movie, some aspects of He Got Game are slightly absurd on the surface, starting with the idea that a convicted criminal might receive a furlough to convince his wholly estranged son to attend the governor’s beloved alma mater. But the conceit works as fable, right down to the stand-in moniker of Big State. By distilling the complications of Jesus’s life into this single dilemma (made more dramatic by a revelation about the Shuttlesworth family past), Lee finds room for both gritty realism and the more impressionistic flourishes of his beautiful, blown-out images.
Hence, the confrontations of He Got Game are more of the one-on-one variety, including some actual father-son basketball matches. Before Washington became one of the most reliable box-office attractions in America, he gave a terrific series of performances for Lee, and his work in He Got Game still ranks among his best: remorseful but self-interested, tiptoeing through his past with deliberate restraint. Remarkably, Allen holds his own opposite Washington’s simmering power—and opposite the wonderful Rosario Dawson in an early role as his girlfriend, Lala. She has a particularly great scene where she lays out what she wants from Jesus and why she deserves to get it.
In some of his weaker films, Lee digs into a grab bag of his own ideas with both arms, emerging with more than he can reasonably carry. He Got Game does almost the reverse, gathering big ideas as it tells a relatively simple story. Using music from both Aaron Copland and Public Enemy, Lee treats basketball as a thoroughly American experience. He removes it from the stadiums and brings it back down to ground level with graceful athleticism.
Availability: He Got Game is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.