The year is 1998. Filmmaker Spike Lee is ten movies into his career but things have hit a snag. The writer/director’s last three movies have all been adapted from other people’s material and have done so-so with both audiences and critics. The harsher among them say that Lee—successful, admired, and a long way from earlier films (like Do The Right Thing) which have his stamp on every frame—is now phoning it in. For his next project, Lee thinks, he’s got to bring the “Spike Lee” back to “A Spike Lee Joint.” He’s got to write and direct. This story has to be both untold and recognizably his.
He calls the movie He Got Game. The premise: a father-and-son story about basketball. Untold? Not really. But then Lee jukes: basketball is not just any sport, he’s argues, but more than football or baseball, America’s Game. To prove it, Lee opens with slow motion footage of hoops being shot in urban playgrounds and suburban driveways, by high school girls’ teams, across amber waves of grain. The music underneath, in case we didn’t get the message, is “John Henry” by Aaron Copland, a less-recognized piece by the most recognizably “American” composer of them all. Copland, eight years dead at the time, even gets an onscreen credit.
The idea that Aaron Copland–white, Jewish, gay, with a musical style that can feel like the aural equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting–and Spike Lee (who also had Public Enemy contribute new songs to the film) could make beautiful movie music together intrigued and baffled interviewers. Never mind Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is as much a sport’s cliche as Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” But when asked about it, Lee didn’t get very deep: Copland = America; Basketball = America; and Copland’s music was shorthand for this argument.
Spike Lee, perhaps the nation’s most famous basketball fan after Jack Nicholson, is not a director of small gestures. Grabbing handfuls of Aaron Copland to exalt his favorite sport may just seem like ham-fisted overreaching. But he’s up to more than that even though he didn’t say so, right from He Got Game‘s magisterial opening and its use of “John Henry.”
Copland based “John Henry,” a 1939 score he wrote for radio, on an American folk ballad. “John Henry” is the story of an African-American steel driver who is so strong that he is challenged to defeat a steam-powered machine in a race to dig a railroad tunnel using only his own power. Henry wins, then dies immediately afterward with his hammer in his hands. Though debated whether a John Henry actually existed, the legend of a working man defeating a machine has been used since as an icon of both the American labor and Civil Rights movements.
“John Henry” opening the film against soaring footage of young Americans playing basketball is vintage Spike Lee and his love of myth. But cutting against it is the film’s anger over the exploitative value we place on the labor of African-Americans. The son of “He Got Game” is the nation’s greatest high school basketball player being wooed, lied to, and fought over by recruiters. They don’t care about him, his family, or his life after basketball. They don’t even care if he dies on the court like John Henry, as long as they squeeze enough wins out of him first.
Lee using “John Henry” to open the proceedings instead of, say, a far-better-known “Appalachian Spring” is a quiet note from a filmmaker not prone to keeping quiet: the America Aaron Copland mythologizes and the sport Lee has loved his whole life and mythologizes here, too, distracts us from a unassailably American truth—we build many of our beloved institutions on the cruelty of greed and the backs of the less powerful. College basketball is no more exempt from this than the railroad barons of long ago. The orange and round symbol of America’s Game says Spike Lee, his movie, and his collaborator Aaron Copland–when we stop cheering–can look an awful lot like John Henry’s hammer.