Rated R - Running time: 2:16 - Released 5/1/98

It is a wonderful thing to watch two artists work so well together. I am speaking, in this case, of Spike Lee and Denzel Washington. Writer/director Lee has produced some quality features in his career, and made his statements eloquently about the African-American experience. And Washington, a first-class actor, has been typecast as a straight arrow for so long that his versatility was beginning to come into question. But here he is allowed to truly shine, playing a character with truly human qualities. Convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth is by no means perfect. But he's real.

This story revolves around Jake's son Jesus (NBA player Ray Allen), a high school senior from the projects in New York City. He is not yet graduated, but is already known across the country as the next Michael Jordan. A long sequence featuring cameos by dozens of real college coaches and network commentators has everyone singing his praises. He is under tons of pressure to decide which college he's going to attend, or whether he's going to go pro directly out of high school. And now it's his father's turn.

Jake is informed by his warden at Attica (Ned Beatty) that if he can convince his son to go to the governor's alma mater, he might get a reduced sentence. But it's not going to be easy, since Jesus is not interested in talking to his father ever again. So Jake is allowed one week on the outside, fully accoutered with a pager and a tracking device, to talk to his son.

Washington gives an exquisite portrayal of a man desperate to find some meaning in his life for the short time he is free. He wants so many things — to make amends, to regain control, to have sex — not to mention cutting the deal to shorten his sentence. And all is made clear between Lee's script and Washington's acting.

Allen, in his acting debut, also gives a surprisingly good performance; he is at once immature and wise for his years. Jesus has been forced to raise his little sister (Zelda Harris) and this has deepened his soul. He also has needs, some the same as his father, but has trouble dealing with the hundreds of people that say they love him and want him, from NBA teams to college coaches right down to his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson). It is unclear whether Allen would be able to play anything else besides a basketball player, but Lee was wise to choose him; he does an admirable job here.

Lee has made many good choices with this film. His actors are almost all believable, and the dialogue is rarely pushed or phony. The give-and-take between Jesus and Lala is especially real. His use of Aaron Copland's music is an unlikely choice, but it works well to illustrate symphonically the highs and lows of Jake's and Jesus' lives. Interspersing this with the music of Public Enemy, the king of rap groups, is genius. Public Enemy is known for producing work that has meaning, not just mindless profanity. It complements the Copland score beautifully.

Just as He Got Game's characters are not perfect, neither is the movie. It is too long; this message could have been delivered in less than two hours and would have been cleaner and more effective. But again, Lee is an artist; he doesn't sugar-coat his work. His portrayal of black America is for better or worse, warts and all. This rough-edged style is his trademark, and he's done well by it. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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