He Got Game
– Cinematography And Film Techniques Essay, Research Paper
He Got Game is a film about the relationship between a father and his son. In this film the father, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), is serving time in prison for murdering his wife. His son, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), is the nation’s top high school basketball recruit. The governor, being an avid basketball fan, has made a deal with Jake that will curtail his sentence if he can convince his son to go to the governor’s alma mater, Big State University. Jake agrees, but much difficulty lies in dealing with a son who still hasn’t forgiven him for taking his mother’s life. It is around this difficulty that the plot is built.
In this film, Spike Lee uses the techniques of cinematography, mise en scene, editing, and sound to enhance the feud between father and son. He gives us insight into their feelings and motivations, he compares their personalities and attitudes, and he illustrates the dissonance between the two men through the use of these techniques.
In Jesus and Jake’s first meeting on the ball court, Lee makes use distance and space to increase the sense of separation between them. Empty space here is exaggerated through the use of a wide-angle lens. Jake is seen here in the foreground with Jesus and Booger in the background. All three men keep a healthy distance apart. When Jake approaches Booger to give him love, Booger backs away, reacting to the violation of the space that the director has created between these characters. This distance between Jake and Jesus is kept throughout the scene as they walk parallel paths across the court to the fence.
As the film progresses and as Jesus begins to accept his father more and more, the distance between the actors decreases. For example, when they are walking along the beach later in the film, they are walking side by side and even making contact at times. A telephoto lens is used here to help flatten the distance. Also, in this scene Jake and Jesus are nearly always in the same shot. In previous scenes, the two men were rarely seen in the same frame. This had affected the viewers’ perception of the distance between them by making them seem farther apart. The use of space and distance in the ocean scene, however, creates a feeling of closeness. The scene ends with a dramatic violation of space: Jake hugs Jesus.
With this hug, Lee demonstrates another use of cinematography. He uses close-up shots to help reveal character emotions. First, there is a close-up of Jesus’ face as he looks down on his father. His expression reveals much of repulsion and not a little of disgust, but for the first time in the film we don’t see his anger toward his father. Next, the camera is tilted down to catch a close-up of Jake. The grimace that follows indicates to us that he is deeply hurt by the situation and that he longs for the opportunity to once again be close to his boy.
Perspective is also used to expressively in this film. During Jesus and Jake’s early argument on the basketball court and in the kitchen, Jesus is often shot from a high angle, while Jake is more frequently shot from a low angle. This emphasizes Jake’s power over his son. When the two men face each other at the end the situation is reversed, and Jesus proves to be the dominant player. After the match is over, the two men are shot from the side, face to face. Jake asks him “Do you feel like a man now?” Here they are shown as equals. Finally, Jake is taken away and the camera zooms out to an extremely high angle shot of Jesus standing alone on the court. As the camera rises, his ego shrinks, and the increasing space around him is a clue to his loneliness.
Mise en Scene
Lee also uses composition to separate Jake and Jesus. The items shown in a shot are often carefully selected for their effect. I found it interesting how Lee used objects of bright color in the film. Color can be a fine method for subtly expressing emotion and Lee is not afraid to use it. Most directors use colors to express emotion by filming a scene with a filter, a special lens, or colored light. In these cases, the effect of the color encompasses the whole scene. Lee, however, seems to prefer the use of color in backgrounds and objects. One way that he did this in He Got Game is through the color of characters’ garments in the film. In Jesus and Jake’s first meeting in the apartment, Jake is seen in a black shirt, while Jesus wears a white one. For a moment, as the two men stand next to each other, the contrast created helps identify them as opposing forces. In the scene by the ocean, both men wear blue and white. Along with the blue sky, these soft and muted colors create quite a different feeling. Throughout the film, characters that are hurt or angered in confrontations are seen wearing red. Jesus is wearing red when his father pushes him over, and when Lala admits to cheating on him. Jake is wearing red when his son rebukes him. In nearly every scene in the film that contains some sort of conflict, one of the characters involved is wearing red clothes. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. If Lee had used lenses or filters this frequently, it would have been distracting. The use of colored garments also allowed him more flexibility in identifying a particular mood with an individual character, rather than the whole scene.
Physical objects are often placed between Jake and Jesus in a given frame. This adds to the feeling of separation. After a serious conversation in the gardens, Jesus steps backwards over the bench he was sitting in. This takes place after the mention of his mother. Lee has made it clear that the issue of Jesus’ mother has divided father and son. The bench that now stands between them acts as a physical barrier that cannot be misinterpreted. Near the end of the film when Jake and Jesus play against each other, a fence post is seen between them as they prepare to play. The use of objects to separate characters in this film is quite frequent. We see it with chairs, gates, and cars as well.
One unusual example of object placement takes place when Jake and Jesus confront each other in the apartment. Here, Mary is seated between the two opposing forces. She might be seen as a common ally to both men, as a mediator between struggling parties, or as the object over which they struggle. At this point in the film, her role is unclear.
Though the use of mise en scene and cinematography are used repeatedly to illustrate the relationship between Jake and Jesus, no technique is used more extensively or as effectively as that of editing. Through the use of editing, Lee conveys the similarities and the differences in the way that Jake and Jesus think, act, and feel.
Parallel editing is used at several points during the film to show what Jesus and Jake are doing at a certain point in time. One example of this occurs when Jesus appears on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The scene cuts back and forth between Jake and Jesus as both men watch the program on television. We see how they each react differently to different portions of the program and through this, Lee helps us understand each character better.
The scene begins with the opening of the program and a close-up shot of both men watching it. Both Jake and Jesus reach up and scratch an itch on their nose. Showing such a specific and quirky movement in unison shows the likeness of father and son. When Coach Bobby Cremins compares Jesus to Stephan Marbury and Kenny Anderson, Jake waves his hand and huffs at the comment as if to say that he knows his son is better than either. This shows Jake’s pride in his son. When the announcer discusses how Jesus was forced to raise his sister, Jesus smiles with pride. His father looks away and wipes his brow as though ashamed to have put his son in such a situation. When Jesus is speaking in an interview about his education, he relates that his mother would never let him play basketball in the gardens until after he had finished his homework. Jake proudly whispers, “that’s right.” Later in the interview, Jesus says that unfortunately his mother “won’t be able to attend (his) graduation.” At this point, both Jake and Jesus are shown in silence, with a grim look on their faces. These close-up shots are done from the side and the light from the television in both dark bedrooms makes each man’s eyes glisten, as if moistened from sadness. In one short sequence, Spike Lee has used parallel editing to show us that Jesus misses his mother, that he values her opinion about education, that Jake is proud of his son, and that he feels remorse for accidentally taking his wife’s life.
Another editing method that Lee uses effectively is the match cut. We first see the match cut used in the opening montage of people shooting baskets. Jesus is shown shooting on the playground and Jake is shown playing ball in Attica penitentiary. This helps set up the beginning of the film by showing similarities between the two characters and by indicating each character’s location and their distance apart.
Lee uses the match cut again when Jesus is reading the letter his mother wrote him when he was a child at basketball camp. We have a flashback scene of Jesus as a child at camp reading the letter. He puts it away and begins dribbling the ball underneath his legs while sitting on the cot. The film cuts to Jesus as an adult, carefully putting away the same letter and starting to dribble the ball under his legs while sitting on his bed. He stops bouncing the ball and reaches for a box of unopened letters from his father in prison. Though we see both of Jesus’ hands holding the box, the dribbling sound continues. The camera then cuts to a shot of his father dribbling the ball under his legs while sitting on the bed in his hotel room. Both the reading of the letters and the dribbling of the ball are actions that are matched in these match cuts. Lee shows a similarity between Jake and Jesus, and at the same time he differentiates how Jesus feels about his father and mother. The mother’s letter has been fondly read many times, while Jake’s letters are unopened.
The best example of a match cut, however, comes in the very final scene of the film. The camera cuts back and forth between Jesus reading his father’s letter and Jake speaking the contents of the letter in a monologue while facing the camera. There is a series of three match cuts here. The first is a medium close-up of each man sitting on a bed in a similar fashion. The second is a close-up of each man from the waist up, facing the camera. The third is an extreme close-up of each in a squeezed frame shot. As the shots get closer and closer, we get the sense of a real connection between the two characters.
Lee uses the jump cut as well to emphasize important points in the film. When Jesus walks into his apartment and sees his father for the first time out of prison, there is a jump cut of Jesus coming around the corner that is shown twice very quickly. This creates the effect of a double take. In this way, Lee emphasizes his surprise at seeing Jake. At other times, jump cuts serve to compare similar scenes in the film. When Jake knocks the young Jesus over in a game of basketball, the impact is shown in three shots from different angles in rapid succession. The same technique occurs when Jesus ironically knocks down his aging father during their final showdown. This serves to make the viewer recall the former scene and also to equate the two incidents in the film. This type of editing also has the effect of stretching time, so as to create a certain level of anxiety in the viewer and to single out those events as significant in terms of plot development.
Showing similar scenes is used in several other places in the film as well. When Jesus reprimands his little sister about giving up on school, he grabs her by both shoulders and shakes her around saying, “If you ever say that again, I’ll kill you myself.” This is clearly a reference to the scene where Jake shakes Jesus by the shoulders and says “you’re gonna sit when I say sit.” An even more obvious example occurs at the end of the film when Jake throws the basketball over the prison wall. The shot is done in slow motion the same way it was done when Jesus threw the ball over the fence as a kid. Like the jump cuts mentioned before, this slow motion technique serves to stretch time and to emphasize the importance of those events in the film.
Sound is also used in the film to draw differences between Jake and Jesus. It is important to note that there are two drastically different types of music in the film: the classical score done by Aaron Copeland, and the rap songs done by Public Enemy. Early in the film, Copeland’s music accompanies Jesus, basketball, and the daylight scenes. Public Enemy follows Jake, darkness and sinful actions. This helps make the characters distinct, and gives the impression that Jake is a bad person by pairing him with darkness and sin. The rap music is played at a noticeably higher volume in two scenes. The first occurs when Jake has just gotten out of prison and covertly checks into a sleazy hotel. The second is the scene where he attacks D’Andre outside of the school and walks around the city streets getting drunk and roughing up his nephew Booger. Whenever Jake and Jesus meet, there is a moment when the music stops. These moments usually have very faint, ambient sound if there is any sound at all. This serves to create the feeling of tension between the two. As the plot unfolds, the audience, like Jesus, begins to see Jake in a different light. The initial moments of silence are shorter and less dramatic. Classical music is played more and more in scenes where Jake’s compassionate side is displayed. Two fine examples of this are the tender lovemaking scene with the prostitute Dakota, and the climax of the film, when father and son face-off on the court.
Spike Lee has used various cinematographical methods to emphasize the relationship between Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth in this film. Cinematography, mise en scene, editing, and sound all play parts in helping the audience understand the complexity of the conflict between the film’s two main characters. I believe that the relationship between Jake and Jesus was the primary focus of the film and I think that Spike Lee has shown a great deal of versatility as a director by doing so much to make that relationship more powerful.