Ron Shelton’s bittersweet ode to loyalty, friendship and basketball.
White Men Can’t Jump is a movie which tackles social prejudice by making the topic key to its sense of comedy.
Far from being the destructive tool one would come to expect from such movies, its racial narrative is used largely as a bonding device between cultures who are deemed incompatible by society. On the surface, Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) is a backwards hat-wearing white bread chump, while Sidney Deane (Snipes) is a slick talking brother with a doctorate in style. As Hoyle himself boldly analyses, Sidney would rather look good first then win, while Billy ‘listens’ to Sidney’s fellow brother Jimmy Hendrix, but doesn’t hear him. Of course, there are giant holes in both of their observations. In reality, the two of them are more alike than either would ever care to admit.
Sidney Deane – Billy, you’re like every other white boy I’ve ever met
And you’re like every other brother I met on the playground – Billy Hoyle
Beneath their cultural and racial delusions are two men cut from the very same cloth. Both are exemplary ballers who never quite made it to the big leagues, and both live on the edge making chump change from hustling on the courts of Los Angeles. Both men have responsibilities to their loved ones, and both are unable to live up to those responsibilities. Sidney is a Jack of all trades without the motivation to master any of them, while Billy owes money to a pair of gangsters chasing him from one cheap hotel to the next. Ego is what sparks the pair’s fated union, and an eye for one another’s talent is what maintains it. They see something in one another that perhaps no one else sees, and are able to rise above their cultural constraints in order to team up for the common good. They are social outcasts who possess the same strengths and weaknesses, and as a result come to develop a very powerful and peculiar kinship. The two of them are losers together and winners together, and they share a mutual understanding on the basis of this.
The opening sequence, like many in the movie, is a comedic tour de force of fast-talking, racial insults which never wastes a word in developing its characters. Billy manages to hustle Sidney at his own game, and Sidney figures he can help use his opponent’s white trash gimmick to work the courts awhile, a proposal which Billy and long-suffering girlfriend, Gloria, played by the wonderfully tenacious Rosie Perez, reluctantly agree to. After a few close scrapes on the rough-and-tumble circuit, things are going pretty well until their egos intervene and Billy manages to lose all of his money, leading Gloria to walk out on him for what seems to be the final time.
Shut your anorexic, malnutrition, tapeworm-having, overdose on Dick Gregory, Bahamian diet-drinking ass up. – Sidney Deane
Gloria is a borderline alcoholic, a former disco queen who spends her days researching useless facts as she awaits the improbable destiny of being invited as a contestant on television quiz show, Jeopardy. Luckily for Billy, Sidney is able to pull a favour with a security guard and get her on the show, and everything is roses until Sidney’s apartment is burgled and he is forced to call on that favour. That favour involves staking a portion of Gloria’s winnings on a two-on-two tournament that could prove the solution to Sidney’s problems, while all but compounding Billy’s own.
The movie is saturated in both the sweet and sour of inner-city life, beaming with the gospel harmonies of soul food crooners, while mired in the crime and decay of the poverty that belies it. Both men are a product of that desperation, and their friendship is often tough with the realities of self-preservation. Never is the movie contrived or sentimental. Sidney grows to like Billy, but when the opportunity arises, he is more than willing to prey on his emotional weakness and steal the spoils for himself. Billy is sensitive about Gloria, and he and Sidney are always closer to confrontation than they are solidarity, a factor their dysfunctional relationship seems to thrive on. In the end, they are in agreement on perhaps one thing: if the basketball is good, all else will fall into place. Of course, the reality of their philosophy is considerably different.
Behind all of the macho bravado, it is the women who provide the movie’s emotional backbone, particularly Sidney’s other half Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell), who with the extra responsibility of an infant son quietly influences her man’s decisions as she struggles to get her family out of ‘the jungle’. She doesn’t push so much as she acts as a cushion for Sidney to fall back on. Hers is a steely tenderness. She doesn’t judge her man for his lack of discipline. She instead recognises his talent as a ball player, understanding what the sport means to a man who might have been playing pro league had fate determined otherwise. As long as basketball is putting food on the table, she is behind him one-hundred percent.
To a lesser degree, the same can be said of Gloria, but her weakness lies in her love for Billy, and her willingness to overlook the rather hefty baggage his love brings. Billy is a catastrophe waiting to happen, a childish fool whose ego forever gets the better of him. Time after time he will squander the fruits of his talent like a moth to a flame, making stupid bets when the odds are stacked against him, or reneging on match fixes whenever his ability is questioned. Billy is another talented flake lacking the professionalism to match, and by the time he finally comes to understand the meaning behind Gloria’s Cosmopolitan philosophies it is inevitably too late.
Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs. – Gloria Clemente
White Men Can’t Jump is a drama first and a comedy second, while basketball ― although celebrated in all of its graceful glory in a series of immaculately choreographed sequences ― is very much a sideshow, and it is perhaps because of this fact, as with Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull, that it can be considered one of the finest sports movies ever produced. That may strike you as a lofty comparison, but what the movie lacks in artistry is makes up for in style and emotion, capturing the culture and camaraderie of its subjects with a compassionate sense of understanding.
Shelton‘s direction sweats with baller authenticity, and the movie’s screenplay ― also Shelton’s ― is one of the most memorable of the era. Often outrageous and ceaselessly bawdy, the movie’s cast possess a warmth which outshines the realities of what is essentially a community of lowlifes. Through language and energy we are able to empathise with their situation, one of failed glories and their resultant hardships, or of apathy towards a society which reduces them to marginal opportunities and abject poverty. Unlike other, more cynical movies, there is no exploitation to be found here. This is not about faceless minorities and the social ills they are invariably held responsible for. This is about real people with real lives who are the product of society as a whole, and in their darkest hour they invariably turn to the courts, where honour and beauty walk hand-in-hand with the scrape of the hustle.
Bittersweet and punctuated by a soulful, often tender soundtrack, the movie is ultimately about love and betrayal, about loyalty and friendship and the decisions we make. It is also about doing the right thing, and how ‘right’ can be a subjective term in relation to those people who make up our lives. Sport may be central to the lives of these characters, but there are more important things to consider, greater and more complex obstacles to conquer.
Basketball, it seems, is merely a part of the solution.