Spike Lee's latest film lays bare his failings as a craftsman and a thinker. Eager to paint a portrait of the exploitation of black athletes, the director sacrifices story, character, motivation and believability -- elements that an astute auteur should consider the bedrock of his art.
"He Got Game" is ostensibly the story of Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), a prisoner who has watched from behind bars as his son has become the most promising talent in high-school basketball. Jake isn't the only one who's noticed. A fierce bidding war erupts between colleges and professional teams desperate to sign the boy. Even the governor weighs in, promising Jake a reduced sentence if he convinces his son to attend Big State, the governor's alma mater. Jake is temporarily released to get the deed done, but there's one more obstacle in his way. His crime, we learn, was the murder of his wife.
The boy is named Jesus -- pronounced not hay-SOOS, but JEEZ-us. The facile Christ symbolism extends to sports-channel montages that hail "the second coming of Jesus" and a Sports Illustrated cover that shows the hoops messiah tied to a cross. It's offensive and silly, and in the real world the religious right would have such campaigns pulled in no time.
Lee isn't interested in the real world. He prefers to essay a blanket condemnation of every temptation a black Jesus must encounter on his way to greatness. One character after another spouts poorly written speeches decrying guns, dope, alcohol, racism and nearly anything else Lee can think of. Upon finishing, the actors often appear to drop character and wait for the camera to stop rolling, as if they haven't been directed to do anything else.
Washington's presence elevates the film, so it's all the more frustrating that his Jake inexplicably disappears for lengthy periods of time. He reappears to strike up an affair with a prostitute (Milla Jovovich) when his attention should be elsewhere.
Casting white women as whores is a key element of Lee's agenda. In the film's recruiting scenes, he makes it clear that their innate lust for African-American studhood is the pawn The Man uses to achieve his evil ends. That virulently racist, sexist dogma provides the final nail in the coffin of conceptual haplessness the director has been fashioning over the length of the film. Game over.