I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

He Got Game

also May 1, 1998

I remember thinking of HE GOT GAME as a slightly under-the-radar Spike Lee joint, but I think it’s become pretty well known over the years. It’s just that it’s in that middle period where he still seemed to have clout but the cultural excitement around him was on a slow, inevitable decline after touching the sun in 1992 with MALCOLM X.

With CLOCKERS and GET ON THE BUS he got increasingly experimental with his style, switching between different film stocks and handheld cameras in energetic ways that I always thought were influenced by Homicide: Life on the Street. HE GOT GAME is a uniquely stylish film that seems more inspired by slick commercials and sports show intros. The story is about the ugly, exploitative side of college athletics, but the style is all about worshiping basketball as the great American sport.

Two credits give you an idea of Lee’s lofty approach: “Music: Aaron Copland. Songs: Public Enemy.” The musical score is built from the sweeping 1940s “populist” style orchestral pieces by, as Lee puts it on the commentary track, “the great American composer from Brooklyn, New York.” Pieces used include “Our Town,” “Lincoln Portrait” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The latter has been used in sports broadcasts and Navy ads, it has played on Space Shuttles and inspired the scores for both SUPERMAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. It was originally composed upon America’s entry into WWII. Copland considered the titles “Fanfare for a Solemn Ceremony” and “Fanfare for Four Freedoms” before using a term he heard in a speech by Vice President Henry A. Wallace. These are reverent Americana anthems for the pursuit of happiness and amber waves of grain and all that.

But then every car that drives by with the windows down is gonna be playing brand new Public Enemy tracks. After having their crucial role of creating “Fight the Power” for DO THE RIGHT THING, Lee got PE to make an entire HE GOT GAME album (with five more songs than are in the movie, I believe). It’s weird that this came only a month and change after Warren Beatty’s BULWORTH used a mix of gangsta rap and Ennio Morricone. A good time for elevated cinematic hip hop juxtaposition.

The opening credits montage is a slo-mo heavy ode to the majesty of ballin from sea to shining sea. Black kids, very white kids, young men and women, dribbling and shooting into hoops and milk crates, against the side of a barn, in the Cabrini Green projects (home of CANDYMAN), in New York with the World Trade Center in the background, all set to the 1939 Copland composition “John Henry.” Basketball is America, it’s all communities, all races, it’s as simple as a farm house and as glorious as a statue of Michael Jordan. And this is also a nod to the fact that NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal (seen here briefly) had played the DC Comics character John Henry Irons in STEEL. Or a comparison between basketball players and the folk hero who died proving he could drive steel faster than a steam-powered hammer. Or maybe Lee just thought the music fit.

Then he intercuts two specific characters shooting baskets: #1 high school prospect Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA star Ray Allen, then in his third season with the Milwaukee Bucks), on the court outside his housing projects on Coney Island, and his father Jake (Denzel Washington, RICOCHET) in a worn down half court in Attica, where he’s doing time for murder. There’s a beautiful shot of the ball leaving Denzel’s hands, arcing in front of a sniper on top of the wall, and dropping into the hoop.

Jake gets called in to talk to the warden (Ned Beatty, CAPTAIN AMERICA, RADIOLAND MURDERS), who has been authorized by the governor to let Jake out for a weekend. They say he can earn an early release if he convinces Jesus to sign up with the governor’s alma mater, Big State. Much like Lee’s later BAMBOOZLED, this premise (along with the the generic college names) sounds like great satire, but it’s treated as straight, gritty drama.

It’s not a glamorous or easy mission for Jake. They sneak him out by poisoning him. He’s escorted by two mean cops (Jim Brown [EL CONDOR] and Joseph Lyle Taylor [Doyle Bennett from Justified]) to a shitty hotel full of pimps and prostitutes. Also he doesn’t know what the fuck he can do, because his son fucking hates him, partly for being mean to him all his life, mostly for killing his mom (Lonette McKee, ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT). They take their time letting you know what he’s in for, and then what happened exactly, and it’s a relief when it at least turns out to have been an accident. It’s still, at best, hard to forgive.

But Jake tries to enjoy his weekend on the outside. He buys some clothes and brand new Jordans. Combs his ratty cornrows into a nice afro. Finds his daughter Mary (Zelda Harris, Troy from CROOKLYN) and gives her Skittles. Gets to know that prostitute next door (Milla Jovovich four years before RESIDENT EVIL). The best part is when he opens and closes the door of the hotel room a couple times and laughs. Freedom. Sort of.

When Jesus comes home to find Mary has let Jake into their apartment he’s furious and sends him packing. He insists that he doesn’t have a father. This is the last thing he wants to deal with right now. He has to decide his future by Monday morning, and everybody’s sweating him. His name is Jesus, but they all want him to be the Moses who leads them to the Promised Land, out of the projects. It’s alot of pressure and distrust. Just about the only character in the movie that’s not trying to get something out of him is his cousin Booger (Hill Harper, PUMPKINHEAD II: BLOOD WINGS). Jesus has to be suspicious of his Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn, CANDYMAN 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH), his coach (Arthur J. Nascarella, COP LAND [not about Aaron Copland]), even his girlfriend with the perfectly Spikey name Lala Bonilla (Rosario Dawson in her followup to KIDS).

He’s very aware of the rules about gifts and bribes and is intent on following them. He still rides the bus because “these are my people.” He only accepts a ride from Big Time Willie (Roger Guenveur Smith, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE) to get away from his dad, and then he has to endure a long, preachy speech in one of Smith’s experimental accents. Meanwhile, off screen voices keep shouting Jesus’s name as he passes them.

But “weighing his options” allows a rotating cast of Luciferian coaches and agents to bring him on tours of temptation. A guy named Chick Deagan (basketball player Rick Fox, DOPE) takes him on a campus visit to “Tech U” that seems mainly designed to wave giggly white girls in his face, and builds up to an arranged threesome with porn stars Chasey Lain and Jilly Kelly. (While listening to Public Enemy!?) John Turturro (EXTERMINATOR 2) has a funny scene as a coach who has him sit in an empty coliseum watching a Jesus Shuttlesworth sizzle reel on the Jumbotron (which is where that fanfare comes in).

In a movie full of materialistic scumbags I’d have to say the most transparently douchey is the sports agent Dom Pagnotti (Al Palagonia), who shows Jesus his collection of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, waving his arms around and barking out an aggressive, QVC style pitch about how much they cost.

“You’re black, I’m white, this is green. When making a business decision, the only color that matters is green. Now, do you consider yourself a man or a boy?” I’d like to see Dom Pagnotti’s mansion fall on top of him like the House of Usher. I’m not sure if Palagonia is a real sports agent or what – on the commentary track Lee says those are really his cars and that he’s the greatest salesman in the world. I wouldn’t trust him to sell me a pack of gum.

Both the cinematography by Malik Sayeed (CLOCKERS, GIRL 6, BELLY, second unit of EYES WIDE SHUT, Beyonce’s LEMONADE) and the editing by Barry Alexander Brown (Lee’s editor from SCHOOL DAZE to present day) are maestro level execution of Lee’s adventurous stylistic whims. Characters sometimes talk straight into the camera, or pose as if in portrait. There are quick cutaways to elaborate scenes of things that are mentioned (people shooting up and smoking crack, Sweetness posing with his stable, “titty,” etc.), and perfectly composed insert shots of details like Jesus and Lala’s jewelry. Present day Jesus mentions his mother and sees her looking down from the window, tinted slightly yellow with nostalgia. Or he reads an old letter from her and it cuts to her speaking the words into the camera, then to him as a kid reading it when he originally received it at basketball camp. There’s documentary style footage of basketball or Jesus and Lala making out on real Coney Island rides with fireworks going off all around them.

And Lee created an ESPN Sports Center story with various luminaries talking about Jesus. Often these “real celebrities talking about the greatness of a fictional celebrity” things are cheap bullshit. I’m not specifically talking about THE RETURN OF BRUNO, but that is an example of the same sort of thing. Here it’s actually a big character moment because it cuts between Jesus and Jake separately watching and reacting to it. At one point they do they same gesture of rubbing the bridge of their nose. When the show talks admirably about Jesus’ self-reliance in the face of “all of the pitfalls that come with being in a deprived situation, and in a situation that’s void of any kind of leadership other than his own,” Jake doesn’t seem too happy to hear that.

Twenty years ago I thought this was a movie that had outstanding editing within the scenes, but could’ve trimmed the whole subplot about Jake’s relationship with the prostitute Dakota. Today I disagree with my younger self on that second part. I think it’s worth it for how good Jovovich, fresh off of her breakthrough role in THE FIFTH ELEMENT, is in the long scene where she skeptically allows Jake to help and converse with her after she’s been beaten by her pimp/boyfriend Sweetness (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, SET IT OFF). I think she really sells idiosyncratic dialogue like her refrain of “you think you’re pretty slick, huh?,” not to mention her reaction when Jake says “Anyway, uh, I have a wife… had a wife named Martha, and uh, I love her very much. Uh, I took her life. I murdered her, and uh…”

Not only has Jake not been exposed to a woman in six years, the last time he was with one it was his angelic wife, he pushed her over in anger and she hit her head and died. So now he’s here in this flophouse with a self-declared “bottom bitch” with a black eye and bloody lip and he’s trying to be caring and gentle and honest.

Denzel has had so many great performances and roles it’s hard to quantify which ones are the best, but for me this one ranks high. It’s a different sort of character for him. The anger is less tempered by charm. From his speech he seems less educated than usual. Even the swagger is a little different. In the scene where he visits Mary I was thinking I’d never seen him so buff before. Must be lifting lots of weights over there in Attica. And there’s a scene where he handles a treacherous sports agent (Leonard Roberts, AMERICAN SNIPER) like THE EQUALIZER would. But when Jesus comes in and gets in his face – above his face – he looks so tiny, and he doesn’t argue.

His remorse seems genuine. We hope he really isn’t the same guy from that night, or even before that night, that Jesus hates so much. We mostly see him act like that in flashbacks, but we can see it coming back as time is running out and he’s getting desperate. And then all the aggression comes out in the climactic one-on-one match (a real game – the script had Jesus winning 11-0, but to Allen’s surprise Denzel really tried to beat him).

I’m not sure I could pick Denzel’s greatest acting moment in this movie either, but one of them is in a flashback, after a drunken practice with 12-year-old Jesus (Jade Yorker, URBAN JUSTICE). He’s been berating the poor kid and pushing him on the court, supposedly trying to teach him how to control his feelings, until Jesus has had enough, throws the ball over the fence and leaves. And then Jake says “That’s why he ain’t gonna make it,” and he puffs his chest out and smiles cockily. What a fucking bully. He’s been Pai Mei-ing this kid under the guise of “he has to be better than I was,” but he’s most proud when he believes (incorrectly) that he’s proven the kid isn’t good enough.

Ha, that happened in FENCES too, with his son being better than him at baseball. I suspect that shit comes natural because in real life Denzel is also a pushy sports dad. His son John David Washington played professional football before becoming an actor and starring in Lee’s next movie, BLACKkKLANSMAN.

Speaking of sportsmen turned thespians, the movie falls just as much on Allen’s shoulders. I think the only scene he can’t quite handle is when he has to shake his sister and yell at her. Otherwise it’s a really natural performance from a guy who doesn’t seem at all like a typical Hollywood leading man, which is one of the advantages of casting athletes. He radiates the decency of a person who will live up to his responsibility to provide for his sister without giving in to the assholes who unironically say things like “There’s no strings, no rubber bands. There’s nothing attached at all. That’s a $36,000 watch. That’s like having a Corvette on your wrist.” With fairly limited dialogue he conveys volumes about his disappointment at the bullshitters around him, his bitterness toward his dad, and his slow, unacknowledged softening toward him as they spend time together.

Man, this one really got me this time. I could feel the tears trying to make a move at the end, but I had good D and shut ’em down. You know how I am with father-son stories, though. It doesn’t necessarily even have to have parallels with my experiences. But I wonder if this story does say something about Lee’s relationship with his own father. I’ve read that Spike also lost his mother at a young age (to cancer) and held it against his father (when he quickly remarried to a white woman) and had a falling out after his father was arrested (on drug charges) and thought he was after his money. But here Lee is obviously very sympathetic toward fallen Jake and even in favor of his relationship with Dakota. Publicly I don’t think there’s any sign that Lee has made up with or forgiven his father. But I guess art doesn’t have to be a description. It can be a wish.

In his folk tale, John Henry defeated a machine, but died in the process. Jesus gets to live, but I’m unclear if he won. Did he sacrifice himself for his dad, or did he want to go to Big State for his own reasons? I’m not sure. But it’s Jake, not Jesus, who kind of martyrs himself, gracefully accepting that his son doesn’t want to save him, and in the end making a gesture that makes no sense on a literal level and is beautifully moving on a symbolic one. A perfect Spike Lee ending.

 

Do you have a problem with movies where the title is said out loud? Here’s it’s Michael Jordan who says it first in a brief ESPN clip. Later I think Denzel says it, and also Chuck and Flav in the theme song. So you have several of the greats saying the title.

Jordan is one of the over twenty players, coaches and commentators of the time who appear, surely making this a great time capsule for sports fans. For me it seems fairly timeless. The only-Copland-or-Public-Enemy music policy prevents any embarrassing “Well, you gotta understand, people liked that kind of shit at the time” needle drops. I believe the only pop culture references are to older things like THE GODFATHER. There’s a pager, and a Playstation, and the World Trade Center is still standing. But the only fashion choice to date badly is in a scene where Jesus is wearing low-hanging overalls over a tank top.

On the commentary track Allen says people gave him alot of shit for that outfit, but as a 21-year-old NBA player playing a high school student he chose outfits based on what he saw kids wearing on the street. Anyway, if you have a problem with that look, take it up with the Blackstreet “No Diggity” video from 1996.

I almost skipped HE GOT GAME in this series, because I plan to eventually get to it in my slow chronological crawl through the Lee jointography, and because in this period, when his films weren’t themselves changing the culture, his singular voice seemed to operate outside of whatever else was going on in film. Luckily I decided it’s not fair to separate movies for being too good to be considered part of summer ’98. It’s already becoming clear that the great stuff from this summer was not the blockbusters but these mid-budget movies that have good production value and entertainment in mind but also a strong artistic voice.

Public Enemy were at much the same place in their career arc as Lee was. They could never escalate from the twin atomic explosions of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990), though Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black went platinum, had some success with “Can’t Truss It” and “Shut ‘Em Down” and controversy with “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” But in ’98 their last album had been 1994’s awkwardly titled Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, which only sold about half as much, maybe because it was criticizing gangsta rap at the height of the G-Funk era. The cover shows a Klansman and a cackling David Duke type watching a skeleton in a red black and green beret with two forties and a bag of weed, listening to headphones and holding a gun to his skull. A little heavy-handed, maybe.

(I think it’s a good album, though. If you haven’t heard it check out “Live and Undrugged, Parts 1 & 2,” where Chuck’s rhyming and the live drums build to a feverish hysteria across six minutes. The key section starts with the line, “Here comes the verse that hurts.”)

The He Got Game album is solid, if not a classic. It seems like kind of a waste to bring back the Bomb Squad without bringing the noise, but “Resurrection” and “Game Face” are good, the title song with Stephen Stills (and based on “For What It’s Worth”) is catchy, and you have to give it up to them for getting “Politics of the Sneaker Pimps” on there. Lee is literally a Nike spokesperson and he’s got Denzel wearing brand new Jordans that are now referred to as “He Got Games,” but here’s Chuck on the soundtrack rapping,”They’ll make me do things on the court to amaze ya / I heard they made em for a buck eight in Asia.”

I’m not as sure about “Revelation 33 1/3 Revolutions” claiming “AIDS was created in a lab.” Wasn’t that an unused Steven Seagal script?

My favorite is “Unstoppable,” the historic teaming of my two favorite rappers circa 1988, Chuck D and KRS-One. I was pretty distracted by that the first time I saw the movie. How was I supposed to pay attention to Denzel stalking down the street while that was going on?

The album was fairly well received, but not a big seller. Same goes for the movie. It got pretty good reviews and opened at #1, but did not go on to make back its $25 million budget. Still, I think it has won the first-to-11 game against the test of time. Though I prefer some of the earlier Spike Lee movies, HE GOT GAME ranks pretty high on his filmography, and stands out from the others with its look, sound and subject matter. And among the films of 1998, especially the films of the summer of 1998, it’s obviously one of the greats.

p.s. Can I interest you in a video of Emerson, Lake & Palmer playing “Fanfare For the Common Man” in an empty stadium? Maybe Coach John Turturro could’ve lured Jesus to Tech U if he’d thought of that.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 at 11:08 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “He Got Game”

  1. This is one of Spike’s joints I need to catch up with.

    And Malcolm X actually came out in 1992.

  2. Just came back from DEADPOOL 2, and I think «Oh, fuck!» is an apt description!

  3. Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was the first Public Enemy album I heard in it’s entirety, so it holds a special place in my heart. Plus I always thought the cover painting was awesome.

  4. The theme song was a small radio hit over here back in the days, but I can’t remember if it actually was a chart success as well. Might have been lower top 40 for a week or two, but not much more. (Back then I actually paid a lot of attention to the music charts [I was 16 after all], including listening to a cool saturday afternoon radio show, that first covered the British charts for two hours, then the German. Which is completely irrelevant to HE GOT GAME, but I’m midlife crising pretty hard on the nostalgia lane, so bear with me.)

    Also in terms of the public losing interest in Spike Lee back in 98: Yeah, that’s true. I remember a review in a local newspaper for this one (I have a weirdly semi-photographic memory when it comes to stuff like that), that started with a long “Lee has lost his edge, but does anyone still care anyway?” rant. Concidentally these were also the last few years of Woody Allen’s cultural relevance. While MIGHTY APHRODITE or EVERYBODY SAYS I LOVE YOU were still some kind of big events, his 98 movie CELEBRITY seemed already only to be of interest because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s participation and from then on only the feuilletons cared about him and Lee.

  5. Oh man, I forgot MUSE SICK & ETC even existed. I was a humongous PE fan during their heyday, but by the mid-90s the sound had moved on and they just weren’t able to keep up, at least partially because The Noise was too goddamned cost-prohibitive by that point, with all the new sampling laws and precedents. Those classic Bomb Squad albums would cost tens of millions of dollars, if not more. So PE dialed it back, trying to keep up with the elegant simplicity of Dre and the then-prominent East Coast boombap producers. It never fully worked because Chuck’s bullhorn flow sounded fenced in by that approach, but I’m curious what I’d think of that material now.

    “Publicly I don’t think there’s any sign that Lee has made up with or forgiven his father. But I guess art doesn’t have to be a description. It can be a wish.”

    That’s a really good point, Vern, one that I can personally relate to. I had one father figure in my life who dropped the ball entirely and made me actively despise him to the core of my being to this day, even though he died a few years back. (A fact which still makes me smile when I think about it.) But when I started writing a book that dealt with some of these issues, I found that I couldn’t make him just a straight-up villain. I had to see things from his perspective so I could find a way to sympathize with him and hopefully make him a more well-rounded, complex character than the venal, selfish narcissist I grew up with. I truly believe that I cracked at least some aspect of what made him tick, and, in the book, I find him to be an asshole but not a monster. The same can’t be said of the real deal. So while my art has made me recognize that it would be healthy for me to let that hate go and remember him not as the piece of shit who ensured I’d never trust an adult male ever again, but as a flawed human who hurt himself more than he hurt me, I can’t bring myself to do it. I hate that motherfucker and I’m glad he’s dead. I only wish it happened sooner.

    My therapist tells me this is something I should work on.

    Same thing with another father figure, whose betrayal I only learned about after his death. That robbed me of the chance to confront or forgive him in real life, so I wrote a story (I think I emailed it to you) in which he was a character with a good intentions but a lot of weaknesses. I really hoped that experience would let me forgive if not forget, but I’m not there yet. The emotional logic tracks for the story but I don’t know how to feel it yet. Maybe the next story will be the one that moves me from wishing to describing.

  6. I love this movie.

    Fun fact: Al Palagonia reprises his role as Dom Pagnotti in the career mode of the video-game NBA2K16, which Spike Lee wrote and directed. It’s a terrible story for the video game medium, but taken by itself, it’s compelling in a slightly bizarre way. You can watch the whole story — titled ‘Livin’ Da Dream’ — on youtube. It’s kind of like watching a stage play:

  7. I am going to sound like a real asshole but I don’t really care about black cinema. I wish there was more of it because movies should reflect more than white people. But whenever Vern reviews a movie like this I enjoy reading and learn but I also get anxious waiting for him to review something I’m interested in.

  8. Why do you think that is, Sternshein? I appreciate your honesty about it, and I’m not going to try to diagnose it. But don’t you think there are things that are universal, that you can relate to characters that are not the same race or gender as you, who live in a different culture or time period, or are aliens or talking animals or cartoons or kickboxers? Why do you think a black point of view is a barrier to your interest?

  9. I don’t know. Depends on the subject matter I suppose.

  10. Racist!

  11. I was watching one of those commercial compilations on Youtube not long ago, this one from 1998 and one of the ads was sure enough a trailer for HE GOT GAME.

    The late 90s is a weird time to look back on these days 20 years later because it’s not as blatantly retro as you’d think, it’s not like if you were to say compare ’98 to ’78, but at the same time the world is such a totally different place now.

  12. I have some friends who have the same problem with Asian cinema. They’re not racists, but they have serious problems identifying with the characters. I’ve given up on them.

  13. “Livin’ Da Dream'”, that JTS mentioned, is such a waste of time… It seems like some idiot at 2K Sports wrote some shitty HE GOT GAME fanfiction and then they asked Lee if they could use his name for a publicity stunt. I find it hard to believe that Lee actually wrote and directed a cautionary tale about how your black best friend is dragging you down and you should listen to the douchey, vaguely racist rich white people, acted by a bunch of robotic wax figures making exaggerated arm gestures because their vacant eyes and faces can’t convey the human emotions associated with their cringeworthy dialogue, with an absurd plot where your character is treated like the second coming of Shaquille O’Neal while what actually happens in the game makes him more like the second cousin of Joel Przybilla.

  14. Sternshein, what you might be reacting to is that, until very, very recently, the only times black filmmakers were given the opportunity was when the films were ABOUT the black experience rather than just films that happened to be about black people. That means a lot of serious, earnest dramas. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do serious, earnest dramas. Make the kind of movies I watch but make them with and for and about black people or any other minority and I’m there. Make another drama about slavery or the ghetto and I’m staying home the same way I would a drama about something white people care about. Make a genre film about those topics and I’m back interested again. It all comes down to more opportunities for different voices means more types of films get made by more diverse people, and that means we never again have to think of “black cinema” as some kind of homogenous thing.

  15. CJ- Wasn’t it around this time that, for some reason, Lee was perceived more as an egregious celebrity than a noteworthy auteur? I remember the 99 Simpsons Halloween Special had Lee among the celebrities being sent into the sun along with Pauly Shore etc. Never made much sense to me, may have made more sense had I been in America

  16. It’s because, as per usual, America had its head up its ass and would rather get annoyed a the person complaining than do anything about the complaints, or even admit that he has anything to complain about. To show how little has changed, just look at THE SIMPSONS’s recent tone deaf and entitled response to the Apu controversy. All the guy was saying was that their treatment of the character had negative effects on him and others like him that the showmakers never considered and might want to address, and they come back with “Well, to me, a perfect and objective white person who knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t want to do any serious soul-searching at all, it just sounds like some of you crybabies need to toughen up.”

    We kill the messenger here in America. Look at Colin Kaepernick.

  17. Illinois Smith

    May 16th, 2018 at 8:38 am

    Haven’t seen this in like 15 years. Have since come to appreciate all of Lee, Denzel and Ray Allen way more. I think it’s time to catch up with this again in HD.

  18. Yeah, the Simpsons Spike Lee gag always seemed a bit harsh to me, although he never was a real celebrity outside of the US, so I always took it as a “Nah, just another promising filmmaker who started to suck”. (By that time I knew his name, but hadn’t seen any of his movies, so I didn’t really have an opinion on him.) If you listen to the audio commentary of LITTLE NICKY*, they also mention that an earlier script had a seen where Lee was chased by a giant spider through NY. They don’t mention if he was ever asked to appear in it or it was supposed to be a diss. (Note that this was the Adam Sandler movie with Tarantino, so who knows?)

    *Man, I miss the time when I would listen to every fucking audio commentary. I should do this again.

  19. *had a scene where Lee was chased…

  20. To say that He Got Game is “black cinema,” whatever that means, is a bunch of bullshit. It’s about basketball and fatherhood, filtered through people who just so happen to be black. Is Field of Dreams “white cinema” and thus worthy of your interest, Sternshein? Because the universal concepts are exactly the same. The kind of attitude you’re espousing is why young black males are murdered by police and the educational disparity continues to grow — “I don’t really care, because it’s not in my neighborhood.”

    And it’s not like we’re talking about Boo! A Madea Halloween here – Spike Lee has consistently made movies that have something to say, both about the black experience and society at large. Ignoring them because, on the surface, they cover “black” topics is foolish and not representative of someone who says they enjoy film.

  21. Mr M is onto something because BlackkKlansman looks completely up my ally.

  22. I actually saw this in the theaters, and I think it went over my head at the time. I was in high school and I was just starting to get into Spike Lee’s films, so the more out there filmatistic choices were hard for me to really grasp. I’ve always meant to return it it (as well as Son of Sam, which also didn’t quite work for me at the time).

    Also, the answer to, “Is Field of Dreams “white cinema”” is a resounding yes.

  23. Two thumbs up for ending on ELP :) Quite appropriate too because that became a staple at sporting events a la the Alan Parsons Project tune “Sirius” which was (and probably still is) the opening theme for the Chicago Bulls.

    I’m with Vern on the father-son stuff, and this is especially poignant because my father spent the majority of my teens in prison. 25TH HOUR is possibly more poignant because I thought Brian Cox did a pretty incredible job there, but these two films of Spike’s are the ones that speak to me most personally. I haven’t seen every single one of his joints but I can’t say for me there’s a bad one among the ones I have seen.

    Beyond that how this speaks to the corruption in college sports probably holds up now more than ever. After watching a recent segment on HBO’s REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL, about the NCAA’s ignorance towards the abuse of student-athletes, it reaffirmed my conviction that the NCAA in some respects, is no worse than our current administration when it comes to the young men and women who are making them billions. It’s an area that is always ripe for dramatic infusion. I’d love to see you do a sports movie month at some point Vern, if at least to give us the chance to discuss the underrated classic BLUE CHIPS.

    Finally, about Spike and basketball. I’m not a sports guy, but I love the 30 for 30 WINNING TIME: REGGIE MILLER vs. THE NEW YORK KNICKS. I watched it again recently, and for Letterboxd my review was simply “The in which Spike Lee unwittingly directed a masterpiece” regarding his goading Reggie into a performance that ultimately lead to a rivalry between his beloved Knicks and the Indiana Pacers. As I am from Indiana, I did take some glee in writing that even now.

    Spike wrote a book called BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE: A BASKETBALL MEMOIR. There’s one chapter in it devoted to movies about basketball I remember as quite amusing.

  24. grimgrinningchris

    May 16th, 2018 at 11:51 am

    I know Vern must’ve been super stoked to find someone in the cast with a COP LAND credit so he could get that joke in…

  25. Not caring about He Got Game is not the same as not caring Black Lives Matter.

  26. Put it this way. I respect rap music and even enjoy rap music. However, rap music is never going to be my go to music. Therefore when my friends talk about rap music I read or listen and learn but I’m not going to ever make rap my main vocal listen. That’s what I was getting at.

  27. @Sternshein: Does your non-interest extend to non-urban/inner city “black” movies? E.g. slavery movies, blaxploitation, action movies, or star driven ones like Eddie Murphy, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, etc.

    HE GOT GAME isn’t perfect–it’s too long for instance–but I’ve found it very underrated, although it’s getting more love in certain corners of the internet now. It’s also got a fore-running to TRAINING DAY Denzel moment–where Denzel gets in a good quick throat punch, trashes talks somebody, and beats them up. Denzel is really, really good in this and it’s got a lot of his trademark stuff and moves that he’d show more later on.

    @ejsteeler, I get what you’re saying. But at the same time, yes, HE GOT GAME is black cinema, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe FIELD OF DREAMS as white. For instance, for better or worse, Spike goes way out of his way to give the people in this story and the area a lot of attention (though the soundtrack goes more the other way…should’ve had more hip-hop imo). FIELD OF DREAMS the setting barely has any reality at all, and the setting and the people there just feel like a backdrop without a unique presence.

  28. This was my favorite Spike Lee movie at the time, although perhaps I should do a side by side with Do the Right Thing from my adult perspective, now that I have a deeper understanding of the causes of violence he was dissecting in DTRT.

    I still think this is possibly Denzel’s best performance, although again maybe a side by side with Malcolm X is in order. I just found the way he expressed all the history and regret of his character so powerful, and unglamorous. I recall a scene at his wife’s grave where he hugs the headstone. Gives me chills.

    I think I was cool with the Jovovich subplot too because I thought it showed him doing something for someone with no expectation for gain for himself. It was relevant context for the morally ambiguous mission he’s on with his son. But I love when movies change with our own life experience. For example, the forthcoming Horse Whisperer, when I was 20 I related to Scarlett Johnasson. Now that I’m 40, I relate to Kristin Scott Thomas, even though I don’t have kids yet.

  29. In terms of top 5 Denzel, I’d go:

    MALCOLM X – if I didn’t love Pacino so much, I’d be a lot more upset about Denzel’s snub for this movie. This performance was a dunk
    PHILADELPHIA – Tom Hanks got the credit. But Denzel has the tougher role, and he nailed it.
    GLORY – One of the best movies in Denzel’s filmography, and he elevates things so that the weaknesses are easier to overlook.
    FLIGHT – this is unique because this movie is a Denzel’s wins above replacement standout. He elevates this movie a ton because of his acting chops but also because he brings moviestardom to what’s, aside from the crash scene, basically a lifetime movie. I’ve already staked my controversial Denzel should’ve beaten DDL for LINCOLN this year oscar take, but I stand by it.
    FENCES – He’s great. I know people have issues with parts of this movie. Most I think are overstated (it’s not as stagey as people insist it is for a stage to movie adaptation), and I think the parts you can criticize don’t go to Denzel’s acting, but more casting and direction/editing (it’s too long and Troy’s youngest son just gets dunked on in all his scenes.)
    honorable mentions: HE GOT GAME, CRIMSON TIDE

  30. Everything Toxic said about Livin’ Da Dream is true. Except I do genuinely believe Spike Lee wrote and directed it, because otherwise why would there be a 20+ minute cut-scene between games where you listen to your team owner recite an extremely long monologue about his junkie friend from college. I don’t see why that kind of allowance would be made unless it was Spike Lee that wanted it. I also don’t know who else they would allow to write *another* 20+ minute scene that starts with your character’s best friend trying to convince you to fund his rap career (he calls himself Bo$$ Key Yacht$) before it’s revealed the reason you’re so loyal to him is because he helped you cover up an accidental murder in high school. And then there’s the ending, which is your dead friend
    posthumously reading you a letter about his childhood. I don’t believe they’d give some unaccomplished hired gun writer from Visual Concepts that much rope.

  31. And since the topic of “Denzel’s best” has come up:

    I’ve seen probably 90% of his filmography (not on purpose, not because I’m a huge Denzel fan that makes sure to watch everything he does, but one day I looked over his imdb and it turned out that I’d seen almost everything from The Mighty Quinn and on). In terms of his best, most impressive performances, I’d probably agree with BrianB’s list, though I’d probably swap at least one of them out for He Got Game. The movies that I *enjoyed* the most, though (excluding He Got Game), are his pulpier outings, where his performances are maybe less-nuanced — movies like Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time, Inside Man, Training Day, American Gangster.

  32. Thanks Franchise Fred. Mystery solved, I guess. I always like it when artists refuse to stay in their lane and do something different, so good for her.

  33. Also, I meant to post that in the Deep Impact thread. My bad.

  34. JTS – I can definitely see that. All those are very Zel-ish on the Denzel scale. I’ve also got a soft spot for OUT OF TIME, which apparently is one of his more derided movies. TRAINING DAY is great. AMERICAN GANGSTER, frankly, I think the movie doesn’t rise to match Denzel, but I can see why some people say it’s a movie where they can see the strings Denzel pulls. It’s still a good movie, but I’ve rewatched it more than other better movies in his filmography…kinda like how with Scorsese I’ve seen THE DEPARTED more times than RAGING BULL. But I still think Denzel is really good in AMERICAN GANGSTER. Tom Cruise and Kobe probably only have a certain number of moves, but they’re still strong moves. INSIDE MAN is also lots of fun. For a top tier male movie star, Denzel might be at near the top in terms of of quality of movies he’s turned in along with strong performances. He’s one of those actors where a top 5 favorites list could range really wide for fans.

  35. I think serious Denzel has a tendency to be a bit boring. I much prefer him in stuff like MAN ON FIRE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE EQUALIZER.

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