NEW YORK — By a wide margin, Spike Lee is the most gifted and influential black filmmaker in American movies. His new picture, "He Got Game," is his most ambitious production since the sweeping "Malcolm X" six years ago.
It's far from perfect, and some scenes may strike viewers as overcooked, overblown, or offensive. But its best moments are as exuberant and insightful as anything the screen has given us this season, and its passionate concern for believable characters in a recognizably real world offers a refreshing change from the current spate of feel-good fantasies.
Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a fundamentally decent man who's locked away in prison after accidentally causing his wife's death. The warden approaches him with an unusual offer involving Jake's son, a superb basketball player about to finish high school. Jake will be set free, the warden says, if he can persuade the boy to join the local college team instead of signing with a major school or turning pro.
Jake is willing to try, but his son has never forgiven him for the tragedy he caused and will barely speak to him, much less follow his wishes. Given just a week to accomplish his task, Jake returns to the city and reestablishes contact with his shattered family. There he discovers that his son is being bombarded with offers from a bewildering number of sports promoters with highly questionable motives.
On one level, "He Got Game" is a realistic family drama centering on a complex father-son relationship. On another level, it has elements of a religious allegory. Jake's son is named Jesus, and the offers he's getting from greedy basketball teams - many laced with enticements of sex or money - are portrayed as devilish temptations in the urban wilderness. At the same time, the worship he receives from admirers (constantly chanting "Jesus saves") serves as a pointed criticism of some people's tendency to seek "salvation" from material activities and human personalities.
On still another level, "He Got Game" is an energetic attempt to create a new kind of American mythology. The key to this is Lee's remarkable choice of music - a blend of rap songs from the group Public Enemy and, more surprising, lively renditions of classic pieces by composer Aaron Copland.
To hear this music alongside scrappy basketball scenes and other urban episodes is to experience an exhilarating new approach to portraying the American experience in movie terms. It marks one of the most brilliantly original moves in Lee's always-unpredictable career.
Not all of "He Got Game" is so successful. Washington's feisty performance is marred by a couple of flat scenes; certain story twists are less than convincing; and eruptions of explicit sexuality and drug use will jar some moviegoers despite their cautionary intent. In all, though, this stands with the most exciting pictures Lee has made since "Do the Right Thing" established him as one of the screen's most inventive young artists.
* Rated R. Contains graphic sex and drug use as well as much vulgar language.