He Got Game
Written and directed by Spike Lee. US, 1998, 136 minutes.
Available on DVD, VOD, and HBO Max.
Whether it’s as the impish, easily-memeable superfan sitting (or, more often, standing) courtside at Madison Square Garden or as the director of six intros made for this year’s NBA Finals, Spike Lee has become one of the faces of modern basketball fandom. So it’s easy to forget he’s the same man who once made He Got Game, not only one of the great American sports films but also one of the most potent critiques of the commercial side of the game. In fact, He Got Game better than any other film captures the flawed and exploitative institutions that structure both our consumption of basketball and the game itself—which is “just a game,” as the saying goes, and a mass media product at the professional level, but inexplicably, for Lee and anyone else who counts themselves as a fan of the sport, a thing of beauty too.
The story is absurd: a man is provisionally released from prison in order to convince his son, a top basketball prospect, to sign with the governor’s alma mater. But as with many of Lee’s best works, He Got Game stops short of becoming a full-on satire, deftly moving between a kind of burlesque and genuine, unironic melodrama. The premise also allows He Got Game to connect mass incarceration with the business of sports, showing them as two ways in which white American society continues to exert control over Black people post-slavery. The climactic image, a ball defiantly thrown over a prison wall by the father and caught by the son practicing miles away at his new college court, ingeniously makes that connection literal—positioning the handling of the ball as a point of resistance against hegemonic forces from Attica to the NCAA. [★★★★★]