Watching He Got Game (dir. Spike Lee, 1998) it’s impossible not to think of the first chapter of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s nightmarish account of a “battle royale” in which black teenagers are made to fight each other for the spectatorial pleasure of rich white men (“they were all there—bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants”). The fighters are taunted with “a magnificent blonde—stark naked,” and the winner is awarded a scholarship to college. Lee doesn’t stage this scene exactly; instead, He Got Game could be described as a meditation on that scene, updated for the late-twentieth-century. I can’t say that Lee’s approach is more “realistic” than Ellison’s, because the film is frequently as grand, stylized, and surreal as the novel. Both He Got Game and Invisible Man work in broad, bold, loud strokes.
Lee observes that life for black Americans is in many ways as violent and oppressive, as nightmarish and as dreamlike, in 1997 as in the 1952 of Ellison’s novel. “Would they recognize my ability?” Ellison’s narrator wonders during the battle royale. “What would they give me?” So too wonders Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), a high school basketball star of messianic proportions, as he weighs competing offers from coaches, talent scouts, and sports agents. And, like Ellison’s Invisible Man, he’s tempted by the promise of “white pussy” as the ultimate status symbol. Lee’s point (or one of them; this is a film with a lot on its mind) is clear: the sports industry capitalizes on black labor and elects only a chosen few to share in its profits. Like the maximum security prison where Jesus’ father (Denzel Washington) does time, and like Ellison’s battle royale, the world of professional sports is ultimately a white man’s game.