He Got Stereotypes

Spike Lee approved

Spike Lee’s treatment of African American masculinity can be observed in a variety of his films. He Got Game (1998) is unique in this variety through the content in which his assessment is presented: basketball. In films like She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Bamboozled (2000), Lee presents black masculinity directly and singularly through the general actions of male characters—through their behavior in regular daily circumstances. In He Got Game, however, masculinity is examined within a specific field of stereotypical blackness: excellence in athleticism. The film is also unique in its mood and look—while the majority of Lee’s films have a dark and independent tone, He Got Game captures more of a Hollywood-esque glamorous feel. That said, the undertones are still very dark. The surface layer and plotline suggest an uplifting rags-to-riches story where success in sports can lead the African American male out of poverty and into prosperity. With attention to detail, however, the viewer can observe the subjugation to black male stereotypes that Jesus Shuttlesworth—the film’s protagonist—suffers during the process. Thus, He Got Game is Lee’s statement on African American masculinity in sports: that the accomplishments and rewards earned through success are overshadowed by and bound to the stereotypes involved in hyper-athleticism. Using examples from the film and external sources, this essay will prove that argument.

From the beginning of the film, Jesus’ life is manipulated based on his status as an extraordinary athlete. The premise of the film is this: if Jesus’ father, Jake Shuttlesworth, can get his son to play for the state governor’s favorite college, Jake’s prison sentence will be decreased. As the number one high school prospect for United States basketball, Jesus is already the subject of bribes; despite the honor of his rank, he is transformed into an item of dishonorable trade[1]. Jesus is being degraded from an admirable athlete to an object of white corruption (the white governor, the white prison warden)—simply by being that admirable athlete[2]. Before Jesus’ athletic pursuit can even begin, he is already vulnerable to manipulation and stereotyping because of who he is. In What’s Going On by Nathan McCall, the author relates this very issue amidst commercialism:

For whites, the glossy TV images of brothers as super-athletes have a completely different effect. Their sense of supremacy is fed by seeing us portrayed as leaping monkeys, more closely related to beasts of the field than human beings. (McCall 11)

The effect McCall refers to is the objectification—or in this case, animalization—of the athletes, rather than a celebration of their outstanding abilities as humans. The same process applies to Jesus: his athletic success is trivialized into a matter of white hegemony.

In the scene where the character Big Time Willy gives Jesus and his cousin Booger a ride to school, Willy describes to Jesus the backlash of his success: “The bigger a nigga get up in this mother fucker, the more they hate you.” Willy proceeds to explain to Jesus how those who claim to love him are only seeking to exploit him and take advantage of his success. (Willy’s speculation does appear to be true—consider Jesus’ Uncle Bubba, who berates Jesus for benefits from the college he chooses.) This presents a variety of new stereotypes to the successful African American male athlete and African Americans in general. The athlete is naïve, exploitable, and dull—that he can so easily be taken advantage of and blind to the deceit of his exploiters reinforces the dumb-athlete stereotype: the notion that sport is the only skill athletes possess. In a study by Matthew Atencio and Jan Wright of the University of Edinburgh and the University of Wollongong respectively, the researchers examine a culture surrounding a local basketball park. Focusing on a selection of young black men, the authors observe a failure to resist the dumb-athlete stereotype in “Ricky,” one of the analyzed subjects:

He glimpsed a life beyond simply trying to become a top basketball player. Instead, he wanted to construct a more diversified self by becoming “a better student, player, and person” (e.g., school, basketball, and religion). He commented that basketball “won’t do everything for me” and that he “had to be good at school, too.” Ricky was, however, unable to invest much in a life outside of basketball and construct an identity accordingly because he first had to gain power and visibility through basketball. (Atencio, 276)

In Ricky’s case, his undivided attention to basketball suffered him the stereotype he wanted to surpass. Similarly, Jesus is pressured to manage the balance between athleticism and intelligence—but, as his mother seems to be the only proponent of the latter, he grows vulnerable to the stereotype (as demonstrated by Willy). Willy’s conviction of the people in Jesus’ life suggests that African American communities are shallow, greedy, and devious. And indeed, even Big Time Willy demonstrates this himself:

You know it’s no coincidence mother fuckers don’t be fuckin’ with you, startin’ beef with you, startin’ shit with you. You know, as jealous as niggas is around here, like that nigga over there—look, the reason why nobody fucks with you is cause Big Time Willy put the word out, aight?

If personally escorting Jesus to school in his nice convertible was not enough, Big Time Willy attempts to keep himself in Jesus’ favor with this reassurance of his loyalty. In this light, his warning of the others is exposed as an effort to boost his chance of benefitting from Jesus and expand the amount he can reap for himself.

Jake and Big Time Willy are not the only characters that capitalize on Jesus’ athleticism. Even his girlfriend Lala accepted a promise of money for setting Jesus up with an agent. The agent—who Lee depicts as gratuitously wealthy—desperately wants to represent Jesus, baiting him with glamorous materials such as luxurious cars and a diamond-plated watch. Similarly, Jesus’ high school basketball coach provides him with illegitimate benefits, such as grade adjustments and money. Subsequently, the coach is hurt when Jesus will not share with him his thoughts on college options—implying that he had deserved such confidentiality by virtually buying Jesus. The notion that Jesus can be bought by his coach, agents, or through his girlfriend only furthers the stereotype that black male athletes are manipulable objects rather than human beings[3].

As in most of his films, Lee’s naming in He Got Game is blatantly calculated and intended for distinct symbolism. Jesus Shuttlesworth is by no means a negative name; early in the film, a sports announcer comments on it enthusiastically: “What most impresses me about Jesus Shuttlesworth is the foresight of his parents to name him appropriately as the world’s greatest.” In addition to the obvious Jesus symbolism—significant because of the praise he receives for his athletic triumphs—the protagonist also shares designation with Fred Shuttlesworth, a distinguished figure and leader during the civil rights movement. Certainly, this homage is reflected in Jesus’ leadership and distinction, but it is a curious designation on Lee’s part as Jesus struggles with maintaining black sovereignty. Ultimately, the honorable dubbing is misconstrued. Jesus complains to his father that while growing up he was teased about his name and that his mother sounded like a religious fanatic when she yelled for him out the window. Additionally, as much as the positive aspects of Jesus Christ are represented in Jesus Shuttlesworth, so are the negative. For instance, as he compromises his person to an object in the process of athletic achievement, he is sacrificing himself to white materialism—much like the crucifixion of the prophet. Furthermore, the name carries superhuman implications that disconnect the hero from the human race. Perhaps Lee’s argument is this: while distinguished athletes are praised, they are held as something different than human; they are othered—a postcolonial term referring to the dehumanization of the indigenous—outside of the community of their people.

Throughout the film, Lee stresses the stereotype that black male athletes attract women. Early on in the film, Booger states: “I feel handsome when I’m on the court, I feel like I’m somebody.” Rather than being confident in himself, Booger relies on his athleticism to grant him respect and appeal. This stereotype is most prevalent in Jesus’ visit to Tech University. His tour guide—a member of the school’s basketball team—exposes Jesus to the adoration college women have for basketball players and even proclaims that white women “love some ball playin’ brothas.” Eventually, the Tech U player brings Jesus to a party where he is greeted by two women willing to sleep with him upon meeting him—before meeting him, in fact, as they were ready as he walked in[4]. Lee’s message is not positive; the notion that women desire black males based solely on their athleticism implies that there is no interest in the personalities of these men, once again reducing them to objects. Similarly, in an essay by Brandon E. Martin and Frank Harris II of the University of Southern California, the authors explain that because black student athletes lack the means to express masculinity through wealth and power, they convey their manliness through sexual prowess:

[There are] two primary orientations through which masculinities are expressed by African American men—the “tough guy” and the “player of women”… players are young men who have established reputations for engaging in sexual relations with multiple women. (Harris 364)

Though the subjection is reversed, the concept is the same: black male athletes suffer their identities through sexualization.

Although He Got Game leaves Jesus Shuttlesworth with a promising and optimistic future, his path there is tainted with stereotyping and manipulation. At various times, Jesus is the victim of exploitation, objectification, othering, and reduction. His friends and family seek to take advantage of his upcoming career and those who wish to represent him view him as their own personal gain. Ultimately, according to He Got Game, the African American male athlete is simplified by society into a figure of entertainment—stripped of his personality and identity. In Jesus’ case, despite his recognition and appraisal, he is sold for a reduced prison sentence, profited on by friends, neglected by women[5], and, as a publically renowned athlete, is a source of amusement in white consumerism. Thus, Lee’s message is this: even though it is a means of rising out of poverty, athletic excellence dooms black males to a plethora of racial stereotypes. Like most Lee films, there is little evidence of hope or resolution to the problem. However, in Jesus’ strive to stay in school—aided by his mother’s emphasis of education over athletics—there is a trace of prospect: through aggressive pursuit of knowledge, black male athletes can eclipse their stereotypes with the assertion of identity and intelligence.

[1] Jesus’ honorable rank is the number one high school prospect; his transformation to an item of trade comes through the warden’s effort to trade Jesus’ commitment for Jake’s freedom. In order to avoid redundancy, I omitted this breakdown.

[2] Jesus is objectified by white men of power solely because he is an exceptional athlete (he has not done anything immoral or unethical to inflict this damage/degradation). The governor and warden are in positions to defy rules, and do so regarding Jesus’ fate. Because he is the subject of the illegitimate bribe, he is the source of the white corruption. This was also not exhausted in order to avoid redundancy.

[3] For further reference on this objectification, see the South Park episode “Crack Baby Athletic Association.” The episode is a satire of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, implying that the organization consists of unpaid—mostly black—male athletes who are profited on by a predominantly white administration.

[4] There’s no evidence that these women are prostitutes. Lee’s implication seems to be that they are “average” college women—over-sexualized and willing to subject themselves without any regard to whom they’re involved with. But that’s a different argument for a different essay.

[5] Neglected personality-wise. As stated above, women subject themselves to Jesus without even considering his personality. This only furthers the deterioration of Jesus’ identity.

Works Cited

Atencio, Matthew, Jan Wright. “’We Be Killin’ Them’: Hierarchies of Black Masculinity in

Urban Basketball Spaces.” Sociology of Sport Journal. Jun 2008. Vol 25 Issue 2. p.

263 18p.

Baker, A. “Hoop dreams in black and white: race and basketball movies.” Basketball

Jones: America above the rim. New York; London, New York University Press. 2000.

p. 215-239. 25p.

Harris, Frank III, Brandon E. Martin. “Examining Productive Conceptions of

Masculinities: Lessons Learned from Academically Driven African American Male

Student-Athletes.” Journal of Men’s Studies. Fall 2006. Vol. 14 Issue 3. p. 359 20p.

McCall, Nathan. What’s Going On. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.

Written in 2011 for an advanced study ethnic literature course.


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