White Men Can’t Jump (2023)
When the black Kamal (Sinqua Walls of Resort to Love) and the white Jeremy (the First Class Jack Harlow) first meet, it’s not exactly bro-love at first sight. After strolling into a local gym in what looks more like yoga gear than baller threads, Jeremy challenges Kamal to a shootout, quickly surmising that a few carefully chosen words can throw him off his game. Right on point, Jeremy’s trash-talk dredges up a shameful moment in Kamal’s past. But it’s not just Kamal, but both ballers who are carrying around hefty baggage that has nothing to do with their gym clothes. In Kamal’s case a promising college basketball career was derailed before it got started when as a high school superstar, he physically attacked white fans who relentlessly targeted him for abuse during a pivotal game. For Jeremy, the promising college career was derailed by knee injuries which sidelined his NBA dreams. So, when we first meet Kamal (a courier) and Jeremy (a personal trainer and peddler of detox drinks), neither has made it to the big NBA stage. Kamal now uses basketball as a physical outlet and has no designs on going pro. In fact, he is perturbed when people gift his young son with basketball toys. In comparison, Jeremy still has the dream of “making it” which drives him to use unprescribed pain medication to take the edge off his persistent knee pain.
The pills and the basketball playing (as opposed to coaching) are things that Jeremy hides from his black girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier), a talented dance instructor who has designs on a professional dance career. But Jeremy is not the only one who is disappointing his partner on the home front. Although happily married and definitely in love, Kamal’s relationship with his black wife (hairdresser Imani played by Teyana Taylor), is strained by his unreliable performance at work and the unreliable pay cheques that follow. The problem? That temper which flares up when a client recognizes the once superstar baller and demands a selfie. The moral of the story? A man’s bad behaviour has a negative impact on the ones he claims to love. For Kamal, his inability to keep a stable job puts his wife’s dreams of owning her own hair salon (as opposed to doing hair in their living room) in jeopardy. For Jeremy, his addiction to pain killers and narcissistic focus on his physical rehabilitation leads him to neglect his girlfriend.
This 2023 remake of the 1992 classic that starred Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, and Rosie Perez, is again set on the sunny basketball courts of Los Angeles where pick-up games are often accompanied by hustling and an exchange of money. While cameos by real NBA ballers like Blake Griffin and Tyler Herro lend surprise and authenticity, its humour, much of it based upon racial stereotypes and misunderstandings, makes it less gritty but no less entertaining than the original. As Kamal and Jeremy, Walls and Harlow have an easy onscreen chemistry that makes both their initial conflicts and later friendship believable. Although originally disturbed and bewildered by Jeremy, Kamal later seeks him out as a two-on-two partner after a job loss jeopardizes his wife’s dream. Initially, they partner up to hustle enough money from unsuspecting black players to pay for the entry fee for a competition which could net them $25k (and that’s USD baby). They assume that their black competitors will equate Jeremy’s whiteness and hippie aesthetic with an inability to ball, and they’re right! But while the pair’s first attempt at glory is derailed, they soon team up a second time with Kamal’s friends Renzo (Myles Bullock) and Speedy (Vince Staples) for a bigger prize of $500k in a three-on-three tournament.
Along the way Kamal and Jeremy prove to be much more than teammates. Rather, each man teaches his newfound friend a profound life lesson. Kamal teaches Jeremy how to face a hard truth and Jeremy teaches Kamal that the peace he is seeking is within. Powerfully, the film offers meditation as both a trope that Jeremy uses to throw off his on-court opponents and a tool that he offers Kamal to confront his deep-seated anger. Of course, it is Kamal’s anger – at missing out on his opportunities at a college and professional career – that flares up when he is first suspended and later fired from his job. Kamal’s mental anguish is not well disguised, but visible to his devoted father Benji, played by the recently departed (1962-2023) elegant and sophisticated Lance Reddick of The Wire and John Wick. From his sick bed, loving father Benji makes a powerful pronouncement that breaks Kamal open and gives him permission to dream again regardless of the outcome: “Your family deserves to know the joyful you, not the guy with the chip on his shoulder.”
We should not underestimate the power of this statement, delivered from a loving black father to his wounded black son. The call to be not merely strong, respectable, reliable, or even fearsome, but joyful is a game-changer for black men who are often not given the space, or the grace to seek joy. Benji’s tenderness with his son has a ripple effect, allowing Kamal to express tenderness with his wife and little boy. And its Kamal’s ride-or-die Imani who bets big on her man at the $500k-tournament, exhorting him to step up and into his greatness, regardless of the outcome when she lends him the $5k she’d been saving for her salon so that he can enter the life-changing tournament.
In the end, White Men Can’t Jump delivers some valuable lessons with a lot of laughs. Lesson # 1: sometimes old dreams must die to give new ones the room to grow. Lesson # 2: persistence and belief can lead you on an unexpected path to the exact place you’ve always dreamt of being.