Not Just a Sports Film: Spike Lee‘s Layered Contexts and Implications in He Got Game

Curator's Note

   Since the mid-1980s, Spike Lee has become one of the most discussed African-American film directors. Lee’s popularity has been generated by the favorable critical response to his films, his tendency to focus on controversial topics, and his amazingly prolific film career. A decade into his career, Lee produced, directed, and wrote the film, He Got Game (1998). This film presents an African-American family melodrama in the context of one of Lee’s favorite sports, basketball. The very first three minutes—the opening credits—are themselves worthy of thorough dissection and examination.     The credits begin with a shot of an open field, filled with golden grain and under a clear blue sky. The camera quickly moves to a young white man, presented in slow motion, shooting a basketball. Lee then cuts back and forth between a varied range of persons participating in the great American sport, basketball. In these shots, Lee presents black players, white players, rich players, poor players, city players, rural players— the single characteristic holding these images together is the act of playing basketball. As background music, Lee uses bucolic music by Aaron Copland, the 20th century American classical composer. While Lee’s film will focus on the corruption and moral decay associated with success in the basketball industry, his opening credits tell a different story.    The opening credits portray a mythical, dream, colorblind image of basketball. Lee, throughout his oeuvre, has focused on stories from within the African-American community, yet this opening montage seems to have no racial focus. The diversity of persons in these opening credits reflects basketballs’ accessiblity—one only needs a ball and a hoop. The credits thus reflect the powerful appeal of basketball across racial lines. Both in its beatific atmosphere and in its demonstration of basketball’s interracial appeal, the opening credit sequence portrays the universality and purity of basketball. The rest of the film, however explores the manner in which capitalism corrodes this purity. When examined from this perspective, He Got Game becomes more than simple sports melodrama; it becomes an examination of capitalism as a corrupting force in American society. The juxtaposition between Lee’s opening credits and the rest of his film direct the viewer to more deeply examine Lee’s story, in particular for its critique of capitalism’s hold on the American psyche and culture.   


Arthur Knight's picture

John Henry +

Terrific explication of this crucial (and beautiful) sequence. I’ve always thought it was interesting that the final shot links together a group of women playing (where the shot starts) and a group of men (where it ends). Both groups are racially mixed, sort of cementing the utopian possibilities of basketball, but (and?) the final players you see are a white woman and a black man, which definitely presages an important dynamic in the story. That the music is Copeland’s homage to “John Henry” definitely further supports your reading—the melody is bucolic (along with many of the images; and there are those strong hits of dissonance), but if you know the folk song/story and are hearing the words in your head (thanks very much to my grade school music teacher) you get a sense that a happy end is unlikely… and the unhappiness is likely to be caused by exploitation of Black (male) labor. Thanks for the reading!

Dafna Kaufman's picture


I actually did not know the story of John Henry! Wow that adds even more fascinating layers…Thank you for mentioning it. The connection with John Henry makes the link to, as you said “exploitation of black (male) labor,” even stronger and more powerful. Thanks for the info and comment!


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