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He Got GameHe Got Game

(United States, 1998, 136 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Spike Lee

Denzel Washington . . . . . . . . . . Jake Shuttlesworth
Ray Allen . . . . . . . . . . Jesus Shuttlesworth
Milla Jovovich . . . . . . . . . . Dakota Burns
Rosario Dawson . . . . . . . . . . Lala Bonilla

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

He is called "Jesus of Coney Island." Jesus Shuttlesworth, of Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High. For his battle-scarred urban neighborhood, he is the local kid who is about to make really, really good. For the sports agents, the rich alums, and the coaches of the universities who want him so bad they actually pray for him -- Jesus is everybody's idea of a savior except his own.

Jesus (played by Ray Allen) is the terror of the projects' playgrounds, the king of New York prep basketball. Everyone wants a piece of him. There's his high school coach, trying to middle a deal to get Jesus to go to one school. There's "Big Time," a local hood, warning darkly of what could happen if Jesus makes any "mistakes" in picking his school. There are the nubile coeds of Tech U., ready to offer Jesus the pleasures of the flesh for his commitment to play for their school. There is the creepy coach of Tech U, who puts together a highlight reel on a kid who hasn't even enrolled. There is the pushy sports agent, who throws diamond watches and Lamborghinis at a kid who takes the city bus to school. And then, from the dungeons of Attica, there arrives Jesus' father, Jake (played by Denzel Washington), on a mysterious "work release program" from his manslaughter rap, bearing a letter of intent to Big State…

This is a double-coming of age story. For Jesus, fighting to keep his footing in a world in which everyone from his Uncle Bubba to his girlfriend to his coach insists on getting his "share" of the goldmine that Jesus represents. For Jake, maturity is staring him in the face years, decades, really, after they should have become acquainted. Two choices are pending: Jesus' choice from among the panting universities, and Jake's decision to confront his past.

He Got Game is among the very best of Spike Lee's major films. Because Lee is known - rightly - as an essayist in social criticism, his films are often not credited for the stylistic vividness that is also a Spike Lee trademark. Here, in He Got Game, that style is on brilliant display. Director of photography Malik Hassan Sayeed often shoots the film's playground confrontations at night, on an indigo-colored court; much of the rest of the film takes place in the deep shadows of night, as well, a suitable metaphor for the film's analysis of the "morality" of big-time university sports. Jake's world is a nighttime realm of intrigue and fear, but Jesus lives by day, in the sunshine granted to boyhood. Whether at home on Brooklyn's mean streets, or in the unreal world of the green lawns of distant Tech U., Jesus is the only bright spot in anyone's life. As everyone about him tries to find ways to make a buck on him, "to get a piece of Jesus," Jesus struggles manfully to keep his soul in his own pocket.

And then there is basketball. Even whorish sports agents and title-crazed university alums can't corrupt the unalloyed love of the game that Jesus feels. The court is his canvas, and his game is a masterpiece he paints anew every night. The most poignant part of He Got Game may well be in its first few minutes, as Spike Lee and his editor, Barry Brown, offer a visual paean to the power and grace and discipline of basketball, as played by everyone who loves the game and lives the game. In among the uncredited heroes of the playground are none other than Arthur Agee and William Gates, the young protagonists of Hoop Dreams. Here, competition is honest, and its own reward. Minutes later, Lee and Brown return with another montage, this time of legendary coaches. Prosperous and smooth, theirs is nonetheless a cool, airless world as presented by Spike Lee, a world of gleaming, empty stadiums and impossibly well-manicured campus greens. But on the playgrounds of Coney Island, the game remains tough, pure, perfect.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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