He Got Game – 4 stars

This is one of Spike Lee’s better films, an audacious picture of Americana (scored by Aaron Copland no less) that both mythologizes and indicts the sports culture while dramatizing the strained relationship between a convict father (Denzel Washington) and his son (Ray Allen), a prized high school basketball recruit. Washington is released from Attica with the promise of a lessened sentence if he can convince Allen to sign with the governor’s alma mater. He has one week to do it, and has to overcome several hurdles, the greatest of which is the fact that he is in jail for accidentally killing Allen’s mother in a domestic fight.

As in Summer of Sam, Lee’s appetite is enormous, and he typically tries to tackle too many issues in this sweeping story. He also includes a pointless subplot between Washington and a prostitute (Milla Jojovich) and indulges in his unfortunate penchant for speeches (Roger Guenveur Smith plays the local crime boss and delivers a PSA soliloquy on all the perils of fame that brings the picture to a screeching halt). But at the heart of the picture is Lee’s love for basketball, which he portrays as something truly majestic and unifying, skillfully interspersing old footage to punctuate the revered history of the game.

Washington is also commanding as the father who drove his son to succeed, and we see in him the love as well as the excesses of a parent who wants too much for his child. The scenes of a younger Washington pushing his little boy to be Jordan and their later one-on-one are beautiful and heartbreaking. Allen, an acting novice, does surprisingly well as the son, communicating the wonder of it all as the world opens itself for him.

This is a flawed picture, but Lee is working from the heart and shooting for the stars and it shows.

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