This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Spike Lee brings the spirit of a poet to his films about everyday reality. "He Got Game," the story of the pressures on the nation's best high school basketball player, could have been a gritty docudrama, but it's really more of a heartbreaker, about a father and his son.
Lee uses visual imagination to lift his material into the realms of hopes and dreams. Consider his opening sequence, where he wants to establish the power of basketball as a sport and an obsession. He could have given us a montage of hot NBA action, but no: He uses the music of Aaron Copland to score a series of scenes in which American kids--boys, girls, rich, poor, black, white, in school and on playgrounds--play the game. All it needs is a ball and a hoop; compared to this simplicity, Jerry Seinfeld observes, when we attend other sports we're cheering laundry.
This opening evocation is matched by the closing shots of "He Got Game," in which Lee goes beyond reality to find the perfect way to end his film: His final image is simple and very daring, and goes beyond words or plot to summarize the heart of the story. Seeing his films, I am saddened by how many filmmakers allow themselves to fall into the lazy rhythms of TV, where groups of people exchange dialogue. Movies are not just conversations on film; they can give us images that transform.
"He Got Game" is Lee's best film since "Malcolm X" (1992). It stars Denzel Washington as Jake, a man in prison for the manslaughter of his wife (we learn in a flashback that the event was a lot more complicated than that). His son Jesus (Ray Allen) is the nation's top prospect. The state governor makes Jake an offer: He'll release him for a week, and if he can talk his son into signing a letter of intent to attend Big State University, the governor will reduce Jake's sentence.