A Major Player: Spike Lee, elder statesman of African-American cinema, examines basketball's hold on American society in his latest release -- a film that epitomizes his life and career.


Spike Lee can be called many things, but subtle isn't one of them.

Take the lead character of his new film, "He Got Game," a high school basketball star played by the Milwaukee Bucks' Ray Allen. On the eve of graduation from high school, he finds himself caught up in a vortex of agents, college recruiters, friends and family members. Everybody wants a piece of him.

Allen's character is called Jesus Shuttlesworth, which is a double whammy. There's the first name, which not only has obvious connotations, but was also a nickname for Earl "The Pearl" Monroe when he was coming up in North Philadelphia. And there's the surname, which is recognizable as that of Fred Shuttlesworth, the venerable Baptist pastor and civil rights leader.

The symbolism couldn't be clearer: Athletes have become secular saviors in late 20th century America, the repositories for the hopes, dreams and pride of their communities. Watching Jesus withstand increasing pressures and expectations, it's difficult not to speculate on parallels with the director himself.

Lee was only 29 when his feature debut, "She's Gotta Have It," was released in 1986, but overnight he became an elder statesman of African-American cinema on a par with Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles. Ever since, Lee has churned out an average of one film a year, becoming prominent in the black community, a mentor for young black filmmakers and a spokesman willing to make any off-the-cuff comment, no matter how inflammatory. His films have taken on special iconic power: They're not just any movies, they're Spike's movies.

But during a recent Sunday, meeting the press in a New York hotel, Lee, who turned 41 in March, denied that the tensions visited on Jesus Shuttlesworth are in any way autobiographical.

"A savior?" he asks incredulously. "No, no. And even if I was given that role, I would never accept that at all." He paused. "Even if the pressure's there, I'm glad I didn't feel it, because sometimes the pressure can immobilize you."

The symbolism of "He Got Game," Lee had explained to a group of reporters earlier, is "really more a comment on the lack of leadership in the African-American community, or just American society in general, where athletes and entertainers are put on that level, whereas before it was religious leaders or political leaders.

"You know, I love Michael Jordan to death," continued Lee, who has directed and appeared with Jordan in several Nike commercials. "But he's the world's greatest basketball player. That does not mean that Michael is going to be politically astute [enough] to lead African-Americans in whatever direction we need to go."

Nattily turned out in an olive-green shirt and cream-and-black houndstooth jacket, a stylish goatee emphasizing his handsome features, Lee answers questions quietly and slowly, punctuating his responses with drawn-out pauses. His eyes, solemn and watchful behind his signature spectacles, rarely meet his interviewer's. The director's reputation as a prickly firebrand is belied by a shy, almost winsome demeanor.


Throughout the afternoon, his voice grows audibly strained, but he lets rip with the occasional guffaw, especially when talk turns to the two "adult" film stars he used in a scene wherein Jesus is being aggressively courted by a university known as Big State.

The women have been hired to help convince the lad to attend, and their convincing gets pretty gamey. "That scene was longer, too!" Lee says when needled about the frank sexuality in "He Got Game." "We just showed the tip of the iceberg in terms of what happens in recruiting. That's light stuff. That's recruitment light." As steamy as they are, the nearly X-rated scenes in "He Got Game," which opened Friday, may not be the film's most controversial moments. At recent screenings in New York and Baltimore, filmgoers booed and shrieked "Nooooo!" when Denzel Washington, who plays Jesus' estranged father, kissed Milla Jovovich, who plays a white prostitute. "Denzel, you promised!" cried one despondent fan to the laughter of the crowd.

"Don't kid yourself, they were serious," Lee says of the audiences' response. "Denzel's their prince. So it's serious business when he's kissing a white woman."

Of course, if Lee had written the prostitute as black, that would have raised issues just as troubling. "You just can't run from stuff that's scary or upsetting all the time," Lee explains, citing love scenes with Washington and his white co-stars that were excised from "The Pelican Brief" and "Virtuosity." "Denzel and I knew this reaction would happen, but what can you do?"

Lee has been criticized in the past for writing shallow female characters. Is he bracing for another "woman problem" with "He Got Game"?

"No, I think women are going to have a problem with that scene, [but] I hope it doesn't escalate to having a problem with the movie," he says. "We knew that going in, the thought of Denzel kissing a Caucasian lady, even someone as beautiful as Milla "

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