Original US release date: March 27, 1992
Production budget: $31,000,000
Worldwide gross: $90,753,806
Released in 1992, White Men Can’t Jump wasn’t Woody Harrelson’s first movie, but it was the film that made him a movie star. Having shot to fame as the lovable doofus bartender Woody on “Cheers”, this was Harrelson’s chance to show that he had the versatility to be more than the butt of the joke. At the same time, Wesley Snipes had already made a name for himself in films such as New Jack City and Jungle Fever and was pretty much a sure thing at the time. Throw in Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) as writer and director and Fox had the recipe for success, whether they knew it or not.
White Men Can’t Jump was an unqualified hit back in 1992 and I remember it having a very strong cultural presence when I was a kid. I was too young for it back then (and my taste for all things film was also many, many years from its genesis) so I had never seen this film until now. It wasn’t what I expected in any way, shape or form. I was anticipating the film being a chore to wade through – a likely display of toxic masculinity, posturing and attitude, and adult content for the sake of earning an R rating and being perceived as edgy. Instead, I got a complex, relentlessly entertaining film that addresses race relations and the difficulty of finding life’s proper balance and does so with a sly sense of humor and a trio of commanding leads.
When Los Angeles street basketball player Sidney Deane (Snipes) discovers a ringer in disguise in the form of unassuming white man Billy Hoyle (Harrelson), the two concoct a scheme to hustle other street players out of their money. Both Sidney and Billy have money issues and significant others (Rhonda is Sidney’s wife, played by Tyra Ferrell, and Gloria is Billy’s girlfriend, as portrayed by Rosie Perez) who are on them about growing up and getting their lives together. Between the two of them, they both reason that they can make quick money and find their way to happy, comfortable lifestyles using their basketball skills, but they soon discover that (say it with me) things don’t always go according to plan.
I was immediately taken aback by how nimble Shelton’s script is, striking an enviably easy mixture of comedy and drama, while also allowing the on-screen performers room to work and take command of conveying the primary narrative to the audience. There are certain scenes in this film that would likely test the ever-straining attention spans of modern audiences: Tarantino-esque dialogue scenes that carry on for fifteen or twenty minutes. These routines are often supported by ongoing basketball games that are occurring alongside them but the basketball is rarely the point. There is always something else far more meaningful than the game going on that directly affects the characters and/or the ongoing story.
Even more impressive is the synchronous – almost symbiotic – relationship struck between Shelton’s off-screen work and his main trio of performers (Snipes, Harrelson, and Perez). Much of the script, if taken out of context from the film, itself, would have little to no meaning when looking at the words, alone. Any relevance or significance is implied within, entirely dependent on the viewer conceptualizing why the words are being said, and not what the words, themselves, are. Had the cast not understood this and failed to properly interpret the meaning behind their respective character’s words and then deliver said words in a way that conveys that significance to a casual moviegoing audience, then the entire film would have fallen apart at the seams. Shelton crafted a slick and subtle script and then found the three perfect actors to ensure its artistic presentation.
Not only did Snipes, Harrelson, and Perez translate Shelton’s ideas to the screen with perfection, they did so with an almost overwhelming charisma that makes it easy to understand why all three got such a career boost from the film. While Shelton didn’t write these characters as bad people (they are all good people with self-destructive tendencies), the cast takes it a step further by making all three of them endearing to the viewer, even when they’re doing something stupid or behaving in a way that’s unbecoming. If, like me, you have never seen this film, you will come out a bigger fan of all three of these performers than you were before your initial viewing.
Shelton’s script has more to offer than that, however. There is no natural conclusion to a story about two vastly different men who decide to join forces and scam other people, so the film is a refreshingly unpredictable journey. And, even knowing that, there are surprises that I didn’t expect along the way. Yet, due to the strong writing and character development, upon reflection it’s obvious that all the pieces were put into play for these little twists and turns. Everything makes sense. But at the heart of the script is a story about putting aside superficial differences and seeing everyone as a unique, valid individual with their own strengths and weaknesses. And though it’s the most obvious, Shelton doesn’t restrict this theme to ethnicity; the women in the film are strong, independent, and – make no mistake about it – in charge. Everything the two male leads do are in service of the women in their lives. They love them, they respect them, and they listen to them (or they try to, at least). In terms of social commentary and feminism, White Men Can’t Jump was decades ahead of its time.
To wrap up for this week, I would like to point a couple of things out. Firstly, I don’t like basketball. I don’t like it, at all. In fact, I hate it. I hate playing it. I hate watching it. I hate hearing it in the background. I even hate hearing about it. But I loved this movie. Like virtually all movies, the surface quality (in the this case, basketball) is just that: a veneer. It’s an aesthetic designed to draw in an audience that otherwise likely wouldn’t be willing to subject themselves to the ideas presented in this film. Ultimately, the basketball is meaningless and even practically able to be overlooked. I often hear people say that they won’t watch westerns or comic book films or science-fiction or any other variety of labels and genres but those are all just aesthetics. The films are never about those things. If I can watch and enjoy a film crafted around basketball, I assure you that anyone can enjoy anything if watched with an open mind (and if it’s a well-made film).
Secondly, I miss when films like this could regularly be hits. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively special-effect driven event films that make big profits and films like White Men Can’t Jump are relegated to no marketing, 1,000-screen releases, and sub-$50 million box office totals. Stop it, everyone. Unplug your streaming sticks, close your laptops (after you click around the Movie March, some more), turn off your phones, find a well-reviewed film that’s flying somewhat under the radar (I have plenty of suggestions right here at the Movie March!), get off your lazy butts, and go support this art form with your money. It’s been taken for granted and disrespected for far too long. There’s plenty of great stuff out there that thousands of people worked incredibly hard to bring to you and they deserve the credit and compensation for it. Fortunately, White Men Can’t Jump was released at a time when audiences were more appreciative and less entitled and the movie was thankfully rewarded for it. Now, twenty-six years after the fact, I understand why.
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