"He Got Game" begins on a powerful note, with a sweeping shot of the American plains. Then, accompanied by the soaring strains of Aaron Copland's "John Henry," a magnificent series of images unfurls, images of young people -- black, white, urban, rural, boys, girls -- playing basketball. As the music builds into a crescendo of emotion and grandeur, suddenly the everyday occurrence of kids playing basketball takes on breathtaking, monumental power.
Spike Lee's 12th movie would be worth the price of admission for this stirring sequence alone, but happily, "He Got Game" gets even better. It is a thrilling film to watch, a personal, passionate, epic-scaled celebration of the cultural power of basketball in a country that has gone stone hoops crazy.
An image recurs throughout that opening montage, a jagged blue-gray shot of a lone basket backed by a broken, decrepit board. The basket is on Coney Island's O'Dwyer Gardens, where so many basketball legends honed their early skills, and where the film's main character, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), has played all his life. Now the country's No. 1 prospect, on the eve of his high school graduation, Jesus faces what everyone keeps reminding him is the most important decision of his life.
Will Jesus accept a scholarship to one of the dozens of colleges that are recruiting him? Will he accept the women, money and other perks some of them are dangling before him? Or will he sign with an agent and go directly into the NBA?
His decision is complicated by the fact that his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), has been released temporarily from prison in order to convince Jesus to attend Big State. State is the governor's alma mater, and if Jake convinces his son to attend, his sentence will be commuted. Himself a failed basketball star who pushed Jesus mercilessly to succeed, Jake has a week to reconcile with his estranged son and persuade him to sign a letter of intent.
The premise of "He Got Game" is impossibly contrived. But Lee's cinematic approach is so electrifying, the world he creates so absorbing, that the story's weaknesses are barely noticeable.
"He Got Game" is told on a stylized, almost mythic level, in the spirit of the oral tradition that surrounds every neighborhood court: It's a tall tale, an urban legend. The characters are larger than life -- consistent with Lee's tendency to have everyone in his films Stand For Something -- a conceit that Lee transcends through skillful, exquisitely controlled technique. Most gratifying are the basketball sequences, which he photographs with full alertness to the sport's balletic grace and brute physical power.
"He Got Game" is at once a homage to basketball as part of the American vernacular and a bold critique of its problematic role within the African-American community. As a way up and out of the ghetto, the sport has provided obvious examples of triumph and talent, but it has also proved a seductive and destructive myth as young black men nurture NBA dreams at the expense of more substantive paths to power.
During the week of his decision, Jesus -- played with surprising self-possession by the Milwaukee Bucks' Allen -- is pressured by friends, family and coaches, all of whom have an interest in his decision. Hardest to read is Jake, whose motivations remain jTC muddy throughout, but he is portrayed with quiet, smoldering energy by Washington, who has squelched his star quality (no easy task) in a deceptively raggedy role.
"He Got Game" is studded with familiar faces, many of them speaking directly to the camera, like the memorable sequences of Lee's first film, "She's Gotta Have It." Real-life coaches and NBA players show up, and members of Lee's repertory company make brief and effective cameo appearances. Roger Guenveur Smith, as a neighborhood sharpie, tosses off a speech about the four horsemen of the community's apocalypse -- crack, Colt 45, guns and AIDS -- with offhanded dexterity. John Turturro takes a Mephistophelian turn as a college coach, who orchestrates a hilarious highlight reel and impromptu prayer ("God, deliver Jesus to us").
But to focus on individual performances is to miss the joy of watching "He Got Game," which explodes in a thrilling welter of music and a super-saturated, highly charged visual look. MTV is often blamed for the downfall of contemporary cinema, but Lee uses its conventions with incomparable judgment and taste.
The hip-hop group Public Enemy has reunited to compose a brilliant collection of songs for the film, whose title track is an ingenious re-mix of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." And Lee makes the unexpected, elegant choice of accompanying the basketball sequences with more of Copland's music.
"He Got Game" is a warts-and-all portrait that is guaranteed to generate controversy. Preview audiences are already expressing their displeasure when Jake befriends and then beds a white prostitute (Milla Jovovich, in a gratuitous role within an equally gratuitous story line). And scenes of Jesus being wooed with white groupies and professional seductresses are strong -- some will surely say offensive -- stuff (parents, be warned: Its pervasive language and frank sexuality make "He Got Game" inappropriate for youngsters).
No single element of "He Got Game" works perfectly. In fact, taken singly, many of its parts are severely flawed. The characters are too broadly drawn, the writing is often awkwardly expository and hackneyed and the film's final scene fails when Lee reaches for mythos and winds up looking mawkish and silly.
Still, as the sum of its parts, "He Got Game" succeeds in grand style as a potent, highly legible cinematic statement of one of the gifted filmmakers working today. If he'd just trust the audience -- or his instincts -- more, Lee could grow from a gifted director to a great one.
'He Got Game'
Starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich Directed by Spike Lee
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated R (pervasive language, strong sexuality, some drug content and violence)
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 5/01/98