Tuesday, May 7, 2013

He Got Game

HE GOT GAME          B+  
USA  (136 mi)  1998  d:  Spike Lee

It ought to be just a game, but basketball on the playgrounds of Coney Island is much more than that - for many young men it represents their only hope of escape from a life of crime, poverty, and despair. In The Last Shot, Darcy Frey chronicles the aspirations of four of the neighborhood's most promising players. What they have going for them is athletic talent, grace, and years of dedication. But working against them are woefully inadequate schooling, family circumstances that are often desperate, and the slick, often brutal world of college athletic recruitment. Incisively and compassionately written, The Last Shot introduces us to unforgettable characters and takes us into their world with an intimacy seldom seen in contemporary journalism. The result is a startling and poignant expose of inner-city life and the big business of college basketball. 
—Darcy Frey, book jacket from the uncredited The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, 1994

Spike Lee’s take on HOOP DREAMS (1994), an often amusing yet also dead serious message about how basketball is the new drug in the urban black community, as it can take you places you never dreamed or imagined.  The amount of attention young black basketball players receive often begins in middle school, becoming an all-out war in high school of competing college interests, each one absurdly creating what they think is the right fantasy to feed into a young man’s imagination, including fast cars, women, and money, where legal and illegal incentives all weigh into the picture.  A mix of gritty realism with fantasia and flashback, what truly sets it apart is the chosen use of music by Aaron Copland, which just feels like the heartland of America, traces of which could be heard in the orchestral music written by his father Bill Lee’s original soundtrack from Do the Right Thing (1989).  In an extended opening credit sequence, Copland is heard over the opening montage that starts off as a reference to Hoosiers (1986), with white kids shooting baskets out in the middle of cornfields, but it slowly gravitates towards the more upscale suburbs and inner city playgrounds, where both Brooklyn and Chicago are duly noted, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Michael Jordan statue outside the United Center, extending to the outer reaches of the country as well before a masterful crane shot takes us from the Atlantic Ocean to the housing projects in Coney Island to the concrete outdoor yards of the Attica Correctional Facilities that houses inmate Denzel Washington (sporting an Afro) as Jake Shuttlesworth.  The music seems to have turned off many viewers, who prefer their basketball movies fast and freewheeling, more compatible with black music, but Aaron Copland, who happens to be white, Jewish, and gay, was born in Brooklyn where Spike Lee grew up, whose classical sound is expansive, grand, and eloquent, and may be the most American orchestral music ever written, incorporating jazz and folk into his music, literally liberating it from European influence, while also writing music for the film version of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN (1940), a fictionalized portrait of small-town America.  These references are not lost on Lee, who makes proudly American movies, suggesting basketball is as quintessentially American as cowboys or Abraham Lincoln.

Sports culture, if one follows the money, is a dominantly male discussion in America, both at the collegiate and professional levels, where a sports movie is also a reflection of masculinity.  As Spike Lee shows his flamboyant support for the New York Knicks through his courtside tickets for games in Madison Square Garden, often engaging in trash talking with many of the opposing players during the game (where Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller in legendary playoff games come to mind when they literally torched the Knicks), he also has many pro basketball friends and acquaintances, and most prominently made a series of black and white Nike commercials in the 90’s with Michael Jordan 1991 - Nike - Michael Jordan, Spike Lee - Is it the shoes? 1 - YouTube (30 seconds).  Suffice it to say, with this basketball pedigree, he would be subject to humiliating ridicule by current NBA players if he made a bad basketball movie, so he avoids dunkfests or the underdog sports cliché, like ROCKY (1976) or Hoosiers (1986), and puts himself at the center of the controversy.  In Lee’s film, Academy Award winning Denzel Washington is not the basketball star, as he’s serving 15 years in prison, but the Governor is a big basketball fan and has taken a particular interest in his son Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by NBA guard Ray Allen at age 22, at the time a member of the Milwaukee Bucks), who is ranked the #1 high school player of the nation, courted by every school in the country, all offering scholarships and other assorted goodies.  The warden has a plan to release Jake for a week, on an electronic monitoring device, guaranteeing a quicker release from prison if he can get his son to commit to Big State University, the Governor’s alma mater. 

Oddly enough, the plot bears a resemblance to John Carpenter’s electrifying thriller Escape from New York (1981), where Kurt Russell as prison convict Snake Plissken is released from prison to perform a morally questionable, near suicidal mission in exchange for the dubious government promise of his release should he succeed, where the suspense is enhanced throughout by a diminishing time limit that could produce fatal effects.  Here Jake is the convict, and his mission is to go into the projects of Coney Island and get his son to sign a letter of intent to enroll in Big State University, where the kid is under siege from every college in the country.  Since so many of the other offers are morally questionable, why not from the Governor?  Lee proceeds to use recruitment offers like Busby Berkeley dance spectacles in 1930’s musicals, each one more outrageous than the last, using quarter of a million dollar automobiles, free access 24-hours a day to willing and available white girls in college dorms, who in addition to sexual favors will also cook and clean for him, or a cool $10,000 in cash as suggestive inducements.  This plays out like utter fantasy, an exaggerated invention of an artificialized paradise, where what’s most distressing is just how real these offers actually are.  College athletics is a huge business, where money is flowing at all levels, where sports agents routinely sign their players to multi-million dollar deals, exactly the opposite world than the often desolate, gang-infested, economically deprived urban ghettoes where these inner city kids come from, as the recruitment process for the best high school players in the country is open season for the highest bidder and amounts to little more than camouflaged bribery. 

The idea of pairing up Denzel Washington with a real NBA basketball player parallels a theme of social reality, which works brilliantly in the film, especially Allen whose shooting skills and talent on the court are indisputable, where Lee capitalizes on his natural grace and timing, turning it into cinematic poetry in motion.  Real life coaches John Thompson (Georgetown), Dean Smith (North Carolina), John Chaney (Temple), Roy Williams (Kansas), Nolan Richardson (Arkansas) and Lute Olson (Arizona) appear on video to remind Jesus, “This will be the most important decision in your life,” which he hears a zillion times.  While Lee is the credited screenwriter, his first since JUNGLE FEVER (1991), using actress Lonette McKee in both, he’s lifted more than a few pages from Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as both are set in and around Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, each grounded in the game’s meaning and potential monetary significance to those living in the Coney Island projects, where basketball is both a trap to those who get injured or fail, and a ticket out to those few who succeed.  The book follows three seniors and freshman Stephon Marbury, an eventual NBA all-star, where the others aren’t so lucky, as Darryl Flicking couldn’t pass the 700 SAT score needed to be NCAA eligible, becoming homeless afterwards where in five years he was eventually hit and killed by an Amtrak train.  One of the other players currently works manual labor, where both the film and book expose the demeaning recruitment process, where teenage kids are tempted by the million dollar lifestyle of NBA stars (see a pulled from the headlines 2013 story where hotel, meals, and travel expenses, along with $20,000 were issued to former coach to lure a college freshman player to an NBA sports agent:  Kansas reviews McLemore coach allegations), where friends and family already have their futures lined up, completely dependent upon this kid’s potential future earnings, convinced he will make it, usually at the expense of his education. 

Much of the movie’s tender and often heartwarming storyline is the friction that exists between father and son, the root of which is not initially known and slowly unravels through the use of flashbacks, but also the pressure that exists from being the best in the country, where so much is expected from you.  Even if you keep your head and avoid the lure of temptation, those around you are more susceptible, where recruiters end up going after aunts and uncles or high school coaches, even girl friends, played here by a young Rosario Dawson.  Everybody wants a piece of the gravy train, and no one wants to be left out, so they get their hands in early.  But clearly, the film’s definitive mano a mano struggle is between Jake and Jesus (interestingly not named after the Biblical figure), both struggling with their own masculinity, where Jake’s dreams to succeed may have pushed Jesus too far in what amounts to bullying tactics, literally forcing him to succeed for the supposed benefit of the family, while Jesus completely rejects anything from his still incarcerated father, thinking of him as a stranger that no longer exists.  Both are connected to a wounded past from which they haven’t recovered and both need to redefine themselves for the future if they ever expect to heal from past mistakes.  Easier said than done, as this film suggests there are no easy answers, that the line between multi-millionaire and prison for a black man is a thin one, where a few split seconds in one’s life may make all the difference—but what a difference.   

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