Ron Shelton’s bittersweet ode to loyalty, friendship and basketball
White Men Can’t Jump is a movie that tackles social prejudice by making the topic key to its sense of comedy.
The early ’90s saw the rise of the hood movie, a sub-genre spearheaded by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and popularised by John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the latter a timely precursor to 1992‘s LA Riots — the largest racially motivated disturbance the city had seen since the infamous Watts Riots at the peak of the civil rights movement. Hood Movies would coincide with the emergence of the NWA and gangster rap, a form of musical protest that attempted to shed light on the social and economic problems facing the inner cities as poverty led to crime and ethnic youth culture was demonised by a mainstream media which only seemed to fan the flames of racial tensions.
Hood movies were generally a pulpit for raising awareness of the realities of urban life. Do the Right Thing would highlight the tenuous nature of coexisting cultures and the influence of racial stereotyping, while Singleton would concentrate on the perpetuating nature of gang culture and its propensity to overcome even the most well-meaning of citizens. Both movies offered glimpses of community, of culture and togetherness, but neither pandered to any sense of idealism. On the whole they were sobering, brutal, and emblazoned with political and social frustrations.
With White Men Can’t Jump, director Ron Shelton delivered a different kind of movie. It still tackled some of those themes: racial tensions, inner city poverty, the pressures of society to conform, but it focused more on kinship and the idea that brotherhood transcends race or creed. The movie’s racial narrative is used largely as a bonding device between cultures deemed incompatible by society. On the surface, Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) is a backwards hat-wearing, white bread chump and 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
Billy Hoyle: And you’re like every other brother I met on the playground.
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 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, and when the two square off in the heat of the morning hustle racial bravado runs amok, but when the the dust clears something much more tangible remains.
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.
Sidney Deane: Shut your anorexic, malnutrition, tapeworm-having, overdose on Dick Gregory, Bahamian diet-drinking ass up.
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 use his opponent’s white trash gimmick to work the courts awhile, a proposal that Billy and long-suffering girlfriend, Gloria, reluctantly agree to. 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.
Rosie Perez puts in a star-making turn as conflicted, Latino firecracker Gloria, a semi-delusional, quasi-intellectual mired in indecision, torn between love and poverty, between trust and reality. Gloria represents the romantic side of life on the fringes. She also provides much of the movie’s heart with her blinkered sense of loyalty and unyielding determination to succeed against all odds, and she’s not alone. 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 someone who would 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.
White Men Can’t Jump is saturated in 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.
Gloria Clemente: 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.
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.
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 subjective in relation to those who make up our lives. Sport may be central to the existence 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.