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“White Men Can’t Jump”: One of the best basketball movies ever
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When it comes to basketball, I am at a loss. I don't really follow the sport that much, so I'm the wrong person to ask about stats and stuff. However, I was really enthralled with the last NBA Finals series between the Lakers and the Celtics. Sporting events rarely get more exciting than that! As for basketball movies, there's not too many I can think of off the top of my head. The first basketball movie (as opposed to a documentary) that comes to mind which I can safely call my favorite featuring the sport would be White Men Can't Jump, which came out back in 1992. It was written and directed by Ron Shelton who had previously made my all time favorite sports movie (let alone my favorite baseball movie), Bull Durham, and it stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as a pair of basketball hustlers who make whatever money they can on the outdoor courts in California.
What I l really love about Ron Shelton's movies is that they never ever follow the typical formula or plot of every other sports movie you see. Not once does he ever recycle the story of Rocky or stoop to showing us the athletic hero on top of the world who gets defeated horribly, ends up tortured with doubt over if he can ever win again, and who of course ends up rising to the occasion to win the final round and get the girl in the process. Having been a minor league baseball player, Ron is clearly more interested in the backstage view of sports in general and how people get so involved in it to where they can't seem to do anything else. Whether or not the guy gets the girl in the end is beside the point. As a result, his films have an unpredictable nature to them that most sports movie couldn't even dream of attaining these days, and White Men Can't Jump is one of his best examples of that nature.
Now instead of focusing on the NBA and all the teams, Ron focuses the action of his movie on the basketball games played for money in inner city California. It's a place we may or may not be familiar with, and Shelton captures the look and feel of it down to crazily colorful clothing gear these guys allow themselves to wear. Wesley Snipes plays Sidney Deane, one of the biggest stars on the basketball courts of Venice, California. One sunny day while he is shooting his mouth off with unbridled confidence, he spots a white guy named Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) who he thinks he can easily defeat in a simple game of free throws. But that's the thing, Billy wants Sidney and his friends to think that of him because he wants to play upon the perceptions many African-Americans have about white people, and he outhustles the hustlers at their game. Although humiliated by Billy's defeat of him, Sidney sees a great business opportunity coming between the two of them, and they soon partner up in an effort to make as much money as possible by hustling everyone else in their path.
Whoever thought of casting Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson together in this movie was an absolute genius! When this movie was made, both actors were at the peak of their movie stardom, and the chemistry between the two is pitch perfect throughout. Aside from the basketball skills they show off here, both of them are clearly having a blast delivering Shelton's trash talk dialogue which I'm sure is as authentic as it sounded when he was researching this story. These roles are tricky because all the actors (not just Wesley and Woody mind you) need the physical skills to match up with the snappy dialogue, otherwise they will be all about talk with nothing to show for it. Taking in Shelton's screenplay, you almost feel like he is inventing a new kind of language the same way Daniel Waters did with Heathers. My favorite moments in White Men Can't Jump include scenes where the dialogue is delivered with passionate gusto:
"You can put a cat in an oven, but that don't make it a biscuit!"
"Oh man shut your anorexic malnutrition tapeworm-having overdose on Dick Gregory Bahamian diet-drinking ass up. Leave me alone!"
"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."
And yes, there are of course many scenes of basketball playing featured throughout, all of which are both exciting and endlessly entertaining to watch. Unlike other sports movies that just run through the motions, the friction between the players on the court is always intense, and you can never sure how things are going to end up. Now how many movies featuring sports of any kind are able to do that nowadays?
But Shelton also takes the time to use basketball as a means to dissect the stereotypes or perceptions that the two main characters have of one another. The way Wesley Snipes' character sees it, no white man NBA player can ever slam dunk the basketball into the hoop, hence the title of the movie. Woody's character on the other hand sees slam dunking as unnecessary and nothing more than grand standing, thereby showing off an ego that is far bigger than it needs to be. Of course, throughout all this talk, each character comes to see that they're not all that different from the other, and whatever differences they do have are skin type. Now this is usually the case in a lot of movies, but I love how Ron Shelton shows this more than tells us. Not once does he try to shove this message down the audience's throat, and he trusts us to be intelligent enough to discover this for ourselves.
White Men Can't Jump also features some fine supporting performances by actresses Rosie Perez and Tyra Ferrell who play Woody's and Wesley's significant others. Both show that, like Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, Ron Shelton really knows how to create strong female characters for actresses to play. In midst of all the trash talking and free throw shooting, the women are a major center influence in the men's lives, and they are infinitely more mature than their male counterparts who have yet to really grow up. Rosie Perez is especially good as Woody's girlfriend Gloria Clemente who spends her time studying all sorts of facts for the day when she realizes her true goal and gets to be a contestant on Jeopardy. I also loved how sheepish Woody was in telling Rosie that he lost all the money, knowing full well that she will not be happy when she finds out. It's like you're almost as afraid as he is.
Seriously, there are very few basketball movies that are as entertaining and hilarious as White Men Can't Jump. It shows how willing Ron Shelton is to peel back the layers of sports as we know it and to show what's underneath. In the process, he finds a lot of interesting things to discover and a lot of great dialogue to go along with it. I still remember the first time I got to watch it back in drama class at high school when the teacher was absent (the substitute didn't seem to care). Watching Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson verbally duel with each other had the class doubling over in hysterics. We may not have been allowed to watch R-rated movies back then, but you got to admit that we really did increase our vocabulary watching this one!
Yes, White Men Can't Jump is my pick for one of the very best basketball movies ever made. For those of you that disagree, please take those bricks you see out on the street and build a shelter for the homeless. When you're finished, maybe your mother will have a place to stay!
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