During my Race and Film class at UC Berkeley, I wrote this analytical piece focusing on Spike Lee film, He Got Game. The film is not only an amazing piece, but is a strong analysis on the commoditization of the black male athlete. My essay follows the path of understanding the struggle of the protagonist, Jesus Shuttlesworth, towards upward mobility in an oppressive society.
In the 1998 film, He Got Game, director and writer Spike Lee tells the narrative of a young man surviving the obstacles presented within the black community and struggling to make executive decisions in his life. The rising basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth, becomes a target for so-called friends seeking to profit from his growing fame. Meanwhile, Jesus’s father, Jake Shuttlesworth is in prison for manslaughter, leaving Jesus and his sister to be independent. While he comes across multiple paths, Jesus overcomes many barriers and manages to survive as an emancipated, parentless teenager in an adult world. Despite the oppression of people of color and the working class, the Jesus’ journey depicts the development of a self-reliant role model within the urban community, embodying the hope for upward mobility in the capitalist hierarchy.
The film opens with a montage of Jesus Shuttlesworth’s success story. Jesus is well-known in his community for being the prominent player of the Rail Splitters, the Lincoln High School Men’s Basketball team in Coney Island. As he is preparing his future and graduating from high school,multiple sports agents pressure Jesus in search of signing contracts to colleges, the NBA, and other endorsements. According to the news media, Jesus is a remarkable athlete and the top pick of high school basketball players. In addition to managing a successful basketball career, Jesus.works a full-time job and raises his younger sister, Mary, due to his parents’ absence. Meanwhile, Jake Shuttleworth, Jesus’ father, is in prison for manslaughter of his wife (Jesus and Mary’s mother). While in prison, Jake is receives an offer from the New York Governor: a shorter prison sentence in exchange for a signed letter of intent from Jesus to Big State University. With temporary freedom, Jake has a week to get the signature and reconnect with the family he left behind.
While often dismissed as simple game, basketball carries a strong following, a community to which the game is lifestyle and a part of daily activity. When Jesus is introduced, he is playing 1-on-1 with friend in a basketball court in Coney Island. Along with this shot, we cut back and forth to Jake playing basketball in prison (4 min). Jesus plays basketball for fun, a pastime activity, in his home environment with a friend. On the other hand Jake shoots the ball in a court within a celled environment, where his only pastime is shooting hoops. As the shots juxtapose Jesus and Jake, basketball appears to be the connection between the two men. In the eyes of the Jake and Jesus, basketball represents a form of freedom, an escape from the stressful and destructive surrounding society. Although they both see the game as a community ritual, others don’t share their passion for the court.
After the Rail Splitters win the high school championships and are interviewed, Jesus discusses his connection to basketball: “Basketball is like poetry in motion, cross the guy to the left, take him back to the right, he’s fallin’ back, then just right in his face. Then you look at him and say, ‘What?”‘(14min). To Jesus, basketball is a form of art, a physical display of talent and body language for self-expression. As Jesus creates his “poetry” on the court, he exercises the freedom of expression, escaping his daily struggles the only way he knows how. Through basketball Jesus empowers himself, finding success through his passion. In his physical abilities to dominate in basketball, Jesus finds confidence and independence in a society where a young black man is not expected to even graduate high school, but rather incarcerated like his father Jake. Jesus’ physical art on the court represents one of the few forms a black man can become self-governing and attempt to escape oppression from the racial hierarchy.
1) Dir. Spike Lee. He Got Game. 1998.
2) Fields, Barbara. Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.
3) Methods in Cultural Studies (Afro Amer Studies 142 AC Handout)