Taking to the courts with Ron Shelton’s bittersweet ode to loyalty, friendship and basketball
Finding a pitch-perfect film, even in the heady realms of plaudit-heavy, high-art cinema, is a tough task indeed. Even the most highly regarded movies have questionable moments, creases that you feel should have been ironed out. Perhaps there’s a plot development that you saw going a different way, a performance that didn’t sit right with you, a musical choice that leapt out like an impostor in the dark, taking you out of the moment and ultimately the whole film. Of course, this is mostly a question of self. It’s easy to sit there and dish out the criticisms, to nit-pick every last facet of formidable works that you actively set out to find faults with. Put succinctly, we’re always looking for reasons to be dissatisfied. It’s human nature.
Discovering the perfect movie can also be about time and place, about mood and environment. Nostalgia can play a part, but films that came into your life in the rose-tinted throes of adolescence begin to show the cracks as the years roll by. You still love them, but as difficult as it is to admit to the little kid inside yourself, they’re perhaps not as immaculate as you once reasoned. Sometimes it works the other way. We’ve all dismissed films based on mood, only to discover their qualities later in life. You often wonder how on Earth you could have misjudged something, and stood by that misjudgement, so vehemently, but it happens to the best of us. Other films came into your life at just the right time but aren’t defined by that fact. You always loved them, always will love them. They’re not affected by the passing of time, the loss of idealism, the evolution of person or environment. They’re magic, plain and simple. They grow with you, not away from you.
For me personally, Ron Shelton’s bittersweet comedy sports drama White Men Can’t Jump is unequivocally one of those movies. It may not have the emotional gravitas, cinematic elegance or seminal qualities of more universal films that are deemed perfect by the consensus, but it does everything it sets out to do with grace, authenticity and flair, standing tall in a notoriously tricky sub-genre. Much of this can be attributed to the chemistry of its cast, but that’s merely the icing on a multi-tiered cake of style and substance. From the moment that iconic 20th Century Fox logo appears, accompanied by a jazzy, R&B riff on the company’s equally iconic theme, you’re sucked into Shelton’s world. And he knows this world. He knows these characters. There’s no room for idealism here.
That’s not to suggest that the movie is joyless. In fact, a few necessary moments of tragic misfortune and hopeless introspection aside, White Men Can’t Jump is never less than warm, witty and soulful — a unique achievement in an era defined by the infamous LA Riots and a slew of close-to-the-bone ‘hood’ movies that pulled no punches in their unravelling of inner city crime and police corruption. John Singleton’s brilliant, ferociously honest Boyz N the Hood, in particular, provided a devastatingly bleak depiction of the LA suburbs, opening mainstream eyes to the self-perpetuating violence inherent by unravelling the media-spun myths of a society crushed by America’s crack epidemic and prison construction boom. White Men Can’t Jump also tackles race and poverty, offering glimpses of a similar environment, but it never gets bogged down in the realities, and, crucially, it never resorts to sentimentality. It is pure entertainment expertly distilled; a specimen as perfect as Michael Jordan himself.
Shut your anorexic, malnutrition, tapeworm-having, overdose on Dick Gregory, Bahamian diet-drinking ass up.Sidney Deane
White Men Can’t Jump is essentially a buddy movie, though our two stars are not polar opposites in the traditional sense. Despite dabbling in racial division, the movie focuses more on kinship and the idea that brotherhood transcends race, even during moments of ethical subterfuge. On the surface, Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) is a backwards hat-wearing, white-bread chump, Sidney Deane (Snipes) a slick-talking brother with a doctorate in style, a man schooled in the art of smack who rules the courts until Harrelson’s college basketball reject struts into town with a unique, self-deprecating approach to the hustle, conning even the most learned grifter with his ramshackle appearance and Jane Fonda workout routine. As Hoyle himself boldly analyses, Sidney would rather look good first then win, while Billy ‘listens’ to Sidney’s ‘brother’ Jimmy Hendrix but doesn’t hear him. Naturally, there are giant holes in both of their observations.
In reality, Billy and Sidney are more alike than either would ever care to admit. Both are exemplary ballers who never quite made it to the big leagues, both are living 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. He lacks focus away from the hustle and bustle of the courtyard. Without the motivation of a wife and child to fend for, Billy is a next-level train wreck, a short-fused egotist with a special talent for throwing away money, a fact that Sidney is willing to exploit on occasion, though in reality his irrepressibly bombastic teammate leaves him with no other choice. Billy knows exactly how to push Sidney’s buttons, but usually to the detriment of himself, frittering away his half of a tournament bounty over a petty quarrel that taps into the movie’s titular proclamation. Billy is insufferable at times, but, much like the ever-forgiving Gloria, you sympathise with him. We believe, as she does, that there’s a good man in there somewhere, even while living out of a suitcase on the run from a pair of crooks gunning for the spoils of Billy’s bad habits.
White Men Can’t Jump‘s opening sequence, like much of the movie, is a comedic tour de force of fast-talking insults that 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 the long-suffering 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 after yet another temporary quarrel, 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.
Perez delivers a star-making turn as conflicted Latino firecracker Gloria, a 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. Behind 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, a steely tenderness that stops just short of judgement. She recognises Sidney’s talent as a ball player, understanding what the sport means to someone who may 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.
I promised you and him. I owe you and him.Billy Hoyle
White Men Can’t Jump‘s strength, asides from the incredible, once in a lifetime chemistry of its stars, is Shelton’s understanding of both the subject matter and the culture surrounding it, an authenticity captured by a screenplay brimming with hilarious courtside vernacular, an impeccably arranged soundtrack of great energy and surgical affection, and a series of expertly choreographed scenes that capture the street baller lifestyle in all of its failed glory. With an Academy Award for best original screenplay already under his belt for 1988’s baseball romcom Bull Durham, and several other sports-related projects on his CV, Shelton’s direction oozes confidence, particularly after hiring former Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks player and Hall of Famer Bob Lanier as on-set coach. Lanier works wonders during scenes that project real skill, Shelton capturing the elegant, rough and tumble nuances of the game with satisfying aplomb. It’s breathtaking stuff at times. So impressed was Lanier with both Snipes and Harrelson he later suggested that both had reached a Division II college basketball skill level.
Former minor league baseball star Shelton smartly surrounded himself with other familiar basketball faces in his quest for legitimacy, most notably former UCLA national champion and Bucks, Clippers and Warriors small forward Marques Johnson, who bags a highly memorable supporting role as comically deranged streetball tough Raymond. His failed liquor store robbery and subsequent on-court capitulation is one of the movie’s comedic highlights, typifying Shelton’s eye for playful humour. Former Clippers, Jazz and Bullets shooting guard, the late Freeman Williams, makes an appearance as fictional playground legend Duck Johnson for the movie’s sweat-dripping climax. There’s also a small uncredited role for former Seattle Supersonics stalwart Gary Payton. Even the non-pros put in believable, often dazzling cameos under the blazing heat of the LA sun. There’s no room for pretty-faced phonies on Shelton’s court.
Managing a rather impressive $90,753,806 worldwide, White Men Can’t Jump was no slouch at the box office either, helping launch the mainstream Hollywood careers of both Harrelson and future action movie headliner Snipes, which speaks volumes about both performances. Like Gibson and Glover in the hugely popular Lethal Weapon series, the chemistry between the two is a joy to behold, something Joseph Ruben and Columbia pictures attempted to recapture three years later with the enjoyable yet ultimately forgettable action comedy Money Train, a film which reunited the pair as quarrelling brothers. The two brought the same energy to the project, offering glimpses of that old magic, but with Latino third wheel Jennifer Lopez replacing the bold and brilliant Perez and a screenplay lacking the same sparkle and sense of reality, it just wasn’t the same. Think Leslie Nielsen in his sub-par, post Naked Gun clones. All the ingredients were there, but something fundamental was missing.
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
There are so many brilliant scenes in White Men Can’t Jump that you immediately connect with its culture, however disconnected you may be in reality. Whether it’s the film’s fast-lipped opening salvo, shooting for the Sudan or moments of genuine heartache, you fall in love with these characters time and time again. It’s all so natural, free-spirited and on the money. Deane and Hoyle, in particular, remain one of cinema’s most charismatic, lovable and underrated pairings, relishing in a delightful script that constantly references itself going forward, allowing audiences an added sense of participation. Ego sparks their fated union and an eye for one another’s talent maintains it. They see something in one another that perhaps no one else does, are able to rise above their cultural constraints in order to team up for the common good. They are social outcasts who possess similar strengths and weaknesses, and as a result come to develop a very powerful and peculiar kinship. The two are losers together and winners together, sharing a mutual understanding on the basis of this.
The film that propels them 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 products 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. He isn’t out to hurt Billy, a fact confirmed after a clearly remorseful Sidney double bluffs his fellow baller in an act of egocentric one-upmanship, but in the ‘jungle’ family comes first and then some. Strangely, and vitally, the two are always closer to confrontation than they are solidarity, a fact that their dysfunctional relationship seems to thrive on in an environment of almost ceaseless inner conflict.
Though humour proves the movie’s lifeblood, the element that sets it apart in a climate of serious racial discourse, White Men Can’t Jump is a drama first and a comedy second, while basketball ― though celebrated in all of its time-honoured 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. Shelton’s direction sweats with baller authenticity, and the movie’s screenplay (also Shelton’s) is one of the most memorable of the era. 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 the resultant hardships, of apathy towards a society which reduces them to marginal opportunities and abject poverty. 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 in their darkest hour invariably turn to the courts, where honour and dishonour walk hand-in-hand with the scrape of the hustle.
Ultimately, the movie is 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.