In theory, a modern-day update of 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump isn’t exactly heretical as far as remakes are concerned. Aside from the admittedly memorable title, it’s hard to determine if there exists any individual outside of middle age who looks back at the original with fondness… or who remembers it, period. That movie is nothing if not a product of its time, but its specificity is also what situates it as something more than just an outdated relic. The framework of the plot was basic: the story of two hoops-loving hustlers with nothing in common — Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes — who banded together to make a few bucks. Yet the original arrived at a unique point in both the history of the sport itself and of American race relations, between fans and players alike.
Pick-up games at courts across America had existed for decades, but it was only around this time that they gained legitimacy within the sport, as corporate-sponsored tournaments popped up across the country with alarming speed. This was also the era of Michael Jordan, with basketball gaining a ferocious mainstream popularity that had rarely been seen prior. While there is no denying that sports are often naively viewed as the great equalizer when it comes to racial politics — talent is talent, full stop — there was something borderline insidious about the way that basketball had been co-opted by middle- and upper- class white America and portrayed more as a status symbol than a celebration of both the sport and the talent that it housed. Love of the game was lost to a sea of dollar signs, and White Men Can’t Jump attacked this particularly thorny subject matter head on, presenting two protagonists whose passion for basketball oozed out of every pore, yet who were also smart enough to leverage that joy for a few dollars, the allegory practically writing itself.
Writer-director Ron Shelton — a former minor league baseball player whose admiration for seemingly every sport that ever existed is on display in everything from Bull Durham to Tin Cup — also was clever in creating two lead characters who brandished words like weapons, their racially motivated put-downs and comebacks presented like a no-holds-barred poetry slam. In the ultimate irony, it was the embrace of these stereotypes that not only allowed some form of communication between the two polar opposites, but forced them to recognize the humanity that bound them together.
2023’s White Men Can’t Jump, meanwhile, has nothing to say about… well, anything. Director Calmatic and writer Kenya Barris — he of Black-ish fame — have no interest in probing the state of basketball in the 21st century or the role that race plays both on and off the court. Class struggle gets namechecked a few times, but not in service of any kind of substantive discourse or to any meaningful degree of specificity. (Hell, even the original was smart enough to make similar subject matter a key thematic sticking point!) What you have here is simply a stalled star vehicle for a rapper, Jack Harlow, who takes on the Harrelson role and exhibits all the screen charisma of a doused fire. Logically, it makes sense to hire a performer like Harlow, as rap isn’t a giant leap from slam poetry and is, in fact, another cultural coordinate that has been co-opted by upper-class white America. And yet Barris delivers nothing in the way of incisive or even clever dialogue for his characters. In truth, whenever race-specific insults are hurled between Harlow and Sinqua Walls — tasked with filling Snipes’ Nikes — it’s almost immediately followed by an apology, as if everyone involved was so afraid to get their hands dirty that nothing much at all happens.
Indeed, the proceedings as a whole feel neutered, the obvious result of a concerted effort to appeal to as many people as possible, complexity and challenging rhetoric excised in the name of streaming views. Everything from plot points to character arcs feel inorganic, the script simply jerking its participants around until they reach a bogus happy ending that the original steadfastly avoided. The female roles are especially problematic here, with Barris in desperate need of a lesson on how being supportive and having agency are not mutually exclusive.
Given the complete lack of witty dialogue or characters worth rooting for, all that remains is the basketball action, and Calmatic is equally inept in this department. Without fail, he opts for a static wide shot when what is necessary is a tight close-up or mobile camera, and vice versa — it’s tough to point to a single shot that scans like a correct decision. If anything, the on-court action looks and feels like homework, something included only because the plot and title necessitated it, not to, you know, celebrate impressive athleticism or love of the game. 2023’s White Men Can’t Jump is nothing but the worst kind of IP-generated greed, an exercise in brand recognition completely devoid of soul or skill. To quote Harlow: you can pass on this bitch like Stockton.
You can currently stream White Men Can’t Jump on Hulu.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.