While there’s a feeling of authenticity and of fully developed characters in “25th Hour,” the same can’t be said for 1998 “He Got Game.” The performances are all top notch in both films, but the plot feels a bit contrived and the ending has nothing to do with reality (It’s a metaphor.). Both are available together in the “Spike Lee Joint Collection 1.”
At the center is a disgraced man, Jake (Denzel Washington), who is in the slammer for manslaughter of his wife although for most of the characters the difference between manslaughter and murder is a minor quibble. By the time we learn about the actual incident, it comes as a bit of a surprise, tweaking our understanding of Jake.
Jake is given an offer by the state governor: If during a week of special furlough Jake can get his son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign a letter of intent to attend Big State University (is that vague enough to make it universal), the governor’s alma mater, then the governor will reduce Jake’s sentence. That might not be too easy. His son is bitter and hasn’t forgiven his father while his sister Mary (Zelda Harris) has forgiven Jake.
Everyone wants something from Jesus who was named for a basketball player. Even though that Jesus and Mary match up makes it seems so biblical, the character is named after Earl Monroe, the “Black Jesus” and also “Black Magic, ” “Thomas Edison” and “The Pearl,” who played for the Knicks. Jesus is the number one basketball prospect in the nation. He’s a good boy, but he’s not above temptation. Jesus is being pressured by the aunt (Lonette McKee) and uncle (Bill Nunn) who took the siblings in after his father went to prison, his coach and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson).
Jake returns each night to a cheap hotel where he befriends the hooker (Milla Jovovich) next door. He pities her; her pimp beats her. He tries to help, but he’s being pressured by the two guys assigned to watch him. Jake’s not a bad guy; he’s not violent; he’s not selfish, but he’s lost his chance.
The cast includes Rick Fox as well as NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pipper, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl in cameo appearances. Lee was taken to task by ESPN over sports regulations and Jesus’ living arrangements, so reality didn’t limit Lee.
Allen, who was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks (He’s currently with the Miami Heat), joins Spike Lee on the commentary track.
One of the reasons to get this DVD set is the extras. I’ve heard Spike Lee speak in person about his film “Do the Right Thing.” He wasn’t very interesting then, but I think it was the company. With Ray Allen, the circumstances are much different. Allen is a professional basketball player and perhaps Spike Lee might have wanted to be an NBA star, but for the movie, Allen was a newbie, an innocent who is put in uncomfortable situations. He’s has a sex scene. He has to hold the screen against the powerful charisma of Denzel Washington. While it might have been a greater coup for have Washington as a commentator, this pairing is more informative. We have Allen who knows about the reality of basketball and recruiting and two people who can comment on Washington, including his basketball skills.
Why I think the situation at Ferguson makes these films more important and the voice of Spike Lee vital is that both of these movies are about men who are trying to find their way, they don’t know who their friends are, they are trying to do right, but aren’t sure what that is. Norton’s character makes sacrifices for his father but he could have gotten our earlier. His father certainly feels guilt and who knows what will happen after prison. Washington’s character is a black man, who perhaps didn’t get the best deal from the legal system, tries to reconnect with his son.
Prison will change or has changed the relationships between these fathers and their sons. A high-roller rich drug dealer who is otherwise a decent guy (hey, he saved a dog) and a basketball prospect are exceptions to the rule. The drug dealer are scum rule, the black man is unimportant rule.
In this collection, Spike Lee asks us to look at how prison and men with money influence the lives of two characters. There are no happy endings in either of these movies but in both cases the men who are prison-bound aren’t the bad guys. They are just pawns and not the kings of their destinies.