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A Difficult Family Tradition: Basketball in Spike Lee’s Film ‘He Got Game’ (Cinema Revisited)

A Difficult Family Tradition: Basketball in Spike Lee's Film 'He Got Game' (Cinema Revisited)

Some films deserve a second reading. In Spike Lee’s He Got Game, basketball is
reinterpreted into a difficult family tradition, one that’s passed down by way
of pain and loss, but exists as the lifeline for the relationship between a
father and a son. Whether that relationship will reach a state of
reconciliation fuels the narrative of the film. Can a father who used the sport
to dominate and control his son, now use it to love him, to reenter his life?

It’s a question that
Lee’s script sets up well, and in doing so, provides deft commentary on the
world of race and intercollegiate athletics; how sports quickly become
interchangeable with the personal worth of black players, and whether that’s
okay. In the film, Jake Shuttleworth, played by Denzel Washington, serves time
in prison for violence committed out to his obsession for the sport, and a need
for his son to inherent the tireless obsession. Instead, his son Jesus
Shuttlesworth (played convincingly by basketball player Ray Allen), grows to
despise him for it. 

Basketball is painful
in this film, but it’s also the key to economic advancement and eventual
freedom. To watch this film in conjunction with regular sports broadcast is to
glimpse the underside of what is usually considered an enjoyable pastime. But
that pastime comes with tough questions. What are the worlds and lives behind
the basketball players on the court? How has the sport imprinted itself into
their sense of family, or their sense of self? What meanings has it taken on in
their lives? How have they been treated, or mistreated, based on their athletic
“worth” or lack thereof?

In Lee’s attention to
the dynamics of this father-son relationship and its reliance on the sport, he
forces us to consider the game as an extension of life, something that is
necessary, never optional or leisurely. Practice and mastery is a given, and
scenes where Jake forces a young Jesus to continue playing even as he’s tired
and exhausted, illustrate this. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes, Jake
initiates an argument with Jesus during dinner that ignites into a fatal,
irreversible act. The scene is full of discomfort, and a feeling that Jake’s
tirade has reached a chaotic peak. Here, the film’s stakes are set. 

When Jake is given the
task to convince Jesus to attend the same college as his prison warden in order
to get a reduced sentence, we wonder how he’ll do it. How will he use
basketball to fix a broken connection, to love, and to reenter when pain and
anger exists? To watch Washington and Allen reunite under these circumstances
is both fascinating and difficult, and asks the audience if they too, would
forgive? Basketball is the gift and the curse, the lifeline and the ending of
life, and the film explores this rich subtext in ways that make it one of Lee’s
stronger films to date. 

On the heels of the recent announcement that there may be a sequel to the film, these questions and observations remain timely. 


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