I should have never looked up the writer/director of White Men Can’t Jump. It’s not that Ron Shelton has done anything wrong; unless writing and directing a litany of sports films is a crime, he’s guilty of nothing.
I just shouldn’t have looked him up because I didn’t want to find out that he’s white.
Now, that doesn’t mean that this movie loses merit, but it does make me look at it differently — especially at its racial messaging.
What appears to be a buddy film about two men, one white, one Black, teaming up to make some cash is really about a down-and-out white boy variously getting played by, or playing, Black men on the basketball court.
Again, this could be an interesting film with a lot to say about the interplay of race and sex. The movie is much more masterful when it’s dissecting sexism. There’s even a great scene wherein Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) questions Billy Hoyle’s (Woody Harrelson) quick jump to jealousy when a Black man compliments his Latin girlfriend. However, in the end, the film’s message ends up as “Hey, ain’t we all just a bit racist?”
When Billy says things like “Chiquita nutcase” when angrily referring to his Puerto Rican girlfriend, or when he insists multiple times that white men “want to win first and look good second” while “brothers” feel the opposite, the film doesn’t bat an eye. The film insists we take it as nothing more than candid smack talk between the races.
If only it were that easy.
Middling racial messaging aside, however, the film certainly has high points.
For example, Rosie Perez should have gotten a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for this role alone. She’s pitch-perfect as long-suffering girlfriend Gloria Clemente. When we see how bad her situation with Billy is, we want Gloria to finally make it on Jeopardy! based on the fact that she memorized every food that begins with “q” (quahog, quail, quince) alone. Although, the film does a poor job of following up on hints that she has an alcohol addiction. Perez plays these scenes perfectly, portraying a woman struggling but not yet stumbling, realistic, not pessimistic. Perez succeeds in getting the audience to want her to get better and to want better for her. And this is likely why we’re so happy when she finally skates out of petty hustler Billy’s life.
Working alongside Perez, Snipes brings a verve to his role that almost felt like leftover charisma from his time as Nino Brown. Not to say that he phoned it in, but rather that the New Jack City villain has enough trash talk and business acumen to fill a couple of films. As Sidney, Snipes plays the dozens like nothing I’ve seen before in film. If Sidney is on the court, you’re getting aggravated out of character and finessed out of your cash. In the opening basketball scene, Snipes is physically and mentally imposing toward all other actors, even when they’re larger and louder. And when he isn’t dunking on the court, he’s dunking on your mama, your grandmama, and your daddy, in that order, knowing the whole time that anger will mentally knock an opponent off balance. It’s a sleight-of-hand he and Billy employ in the film.
Behind this facade, though, Sidney is a family man. He wants to get his wife and son out of their rough neighborhood and into a safer home. Still, manly pride gets in his way, and he’d rather work himself to death than allow his wife to get a job. The film, rightly, corrects this in the end.
Where White Men Can’t Jump fails to make any enlightening point concerning race, it does an amazing job highlighting male hypocrisy.
Early in the film, Perez’ Gloria gets angry with Billy when he grabs her a glass of water after she says her mouth is dry. Confused as to why she’s upset, Billy asks what the problem is. Gloria explains that when she says she’s thirsty, she’s simply telling him how she feels; she’s looking for communication rather than a quick fix. “Men always make the mistake of thinking they can solve a woman’s problem,” she says, “it makes them feel omnipotent.”
Straight men’s strange ways are what the film explores best. In one scene, Billy is nearly beaten or shot, or both, by Sidney’s friends, but the tension deflates by the men noticing a great basketball game on TV. Elsewhere, even after Gloria helps Billy see Sidney has hustled him, Billy refuses to confront him, as “Men’s Rules” require that one never condescend to ask for money, even when that money is key to saving your life.
By the end of the film, when Gloria leaves Billy, this time for good, Sidney offers this advice: “‘Listen to the woman.’”
Is there a chance that this may be the product of a “Happy wife, happy life” brand of machismo? It’s possible. And yet, the film breaks our heart when we see Gloria walk away, finally conscious that Billy will always be looking for the next hustle, the next gamble, regardless of whatever sound advice she can give him.
White Men Can’t Jump is not a perfect movie by any metric. It feels overlong at just under two hours, and most characters besides Gloria feel morally reprehensible or, well, annoying. The direction is serviceable despite being uninspired, and the soundtrack wavers between being great or just okay.
Overall, the film’s “white boys have problems too” message is hokey, and it feels dated in an age where intersectional feminism dominates how many perceive interactions between race and sex. Still, the great leads, the frenetic basketball scenes, and the often playful, sometimes sobering deconstruction of male ego make it worth a viewing.
But, for those out there still hankering for a film about a down-and-out white boy being victimized by Black people for the color of his skin only to come out on top and beat them at their own game, might I recommend 8 Mile?
I mean, at least that movie has the Falcon getting owned by a Bunny Rabbit.
White Men Can’t Jump is available for streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.
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Wayne Broadway is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and is currently obsessed with Pomeranians.