White Men Can't Jump
Disney+ leans into adult content with this funny but prickly remake of the 1992 film that looks at Black/white relations through the prism of basketball available on Hulu in the U.S.
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’d heard a while back that Disney+ was going to lean into adult content to build out its brand beyond family-friendly fare like animated films, Star Wars and superhero flicks. It seems like a good idea — though I don’t expect them to ever get into HBO Max territory with shows like “Euphoria” and its “montage of penises.” (Google it, if you dare.)
Later I heard one of their projects in this vein was a remake of Ron Shelton’s 1992 film “White Men Can’t Jump” starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original, but admit it was a bold look at Black-white race relations at a pivotal moment in our history viewed through the lens of the “blackest” sport, basketball.
It was willing to scratch our body politic in itchy places mainstream movies generally avoid.
The remake is much the same, but also in some ways quite different. Any fears they might have watered down the material are unfounded. It’s an R-rated affair with swearing, fist- and gun-fights, humorous but biting jokes about race and a liberal spreading of the n-word all around — though not through any white lips, wisely.
Though it’s a Disney+ production and plays on that platform in most international markets, “White Men Can’t Jump” is available to watch on Hulu in the U.S.
The basic story is unchanged: two pickup b-ball hustlers, one white and one Black, reluctantly join forces to chase the big money while dealing with the women in their lives, who want them to give up their hoop dreams and embrace family stability. Both men are in their late 20s, former basketball prodigies who fell on hard times and saw their NBA aspirations dissipate.
Beyond that, they are quite different men. Kamal (Sinqua Walls, “Friday Night Lights,” “The 15:17 to Paris”) was hyped as the next big thing in high school, a sure-fire draft pick — especially by his dad, Benji (the late — *sniff!* — Lance Reddick). He was known for pumping up Kamal on the airwaves, LaVar Ball-like, to the extent the kid was mercilessly heckled for it, eventually leading to a violent confrontation with a fan that derailed his college/pro hoops journey.
Ten years later, he’s still in Los Angeles working as the driver of a delivery truck, dealing with people asking for autographs and selfies while getting a package on their doorstep. He and his wife, Imani (Teyana Taylor), have a young son and are struggling financially, with her doing hair in their apartment while raising cash to open her own salon. Life has left him moody and resentful.
Kamal still balls, but strictly pickup games with his friends, Speedy and Renzo (Vince Staples and Myles Bullock, respectively). One day into their gym walks Jeremy (Jack Harlow, heretofore mostly known as a rapper), a sandal-wearing white dude in tie dye and foppish hair. He works itinerantly as a coach/trainer for young developing players, but makes side money hustling players, especially Black ones, who think he’s too slow and unathletic (read: white) to play.
Actually, he was a minor star at Gonzaga, but two torn ACLs have left him gimpy. He still dreams of playing ball professionally, maybe in the G-League or overseas, and he’s secretly popping pills to deal with the pain, while also trying out a bunch of questionable sports medicine hacks.
Jeremy’s shtick is that he’s a harmless, New Age-y vegan who teaches people breathing and meditation, while also hawking his line of weirdo 30-day cleanse drinks. He has a knack for needling other players with seemingly helpful advice, like advising them not to take shots that are clearly out of their range. It’s basically passive-aggressive trash talk, but it works.
Jeremy takes Kamal for $300, which bothers him to no end. Kamal has enough self-control and smarts to recognize a good thing, and recruits Jeremy to be his partner in an upcoming streetball tournament at Venice Beach where the winners get $25,000. There’s an even bigger 3-on-3 opportunity down the line with a half-mil at stake.
(For the record, the prize money in the 1992 movie was $5k. Inflation, I guess.)
They start hustling games all over LA to raise the $2,500 stake money, each not being entirely truthful with their significant other about what they’re up to. Jeremy’s girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Harrier), who is Black and a classical dancer, is on the verge of a career breakthrough that could take her away for awhile, and wants to know her man will be there, in body and spirit, when she returns.
The heart of the movie is Kamal and Jeremy hooping and cracking on each other, with a whole lot of stereotypes about race that are tossed out, twisted around and subverted. Jeremy is the sort of guy who poses as a white ally but makes a big joke of it, and Kamal is willing to laugh it off in the spirit of their enterprise, while pushing back when important lines are crossed. Both insist they won’t become friends, but the ice starts to melt.
Harlow and Speedy act as the Greek chorus, commenting upon the proceedings and occasionally taking part. They have a running joke about whether or not to rob Jeremy, and if slowing his annoying roll is worth reinforcing a tired narrative. “We ain't never gonna get our reparations that way, bruh.”
Director Calmatic is a music video veteran who had his first feature film, another ‘90s remake, “House Party,” come out earlier this year. His basketball scenes are reasonably authentic and he gets good, lived-in performances from the cast, including rookie Harlow. Neither actor looks like they’re ready to challenge Scoot Henderson for an NBA draft spot, but they’re believable as public court ringers.
Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Doug Hall, who together worked on the shows “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish,” clearly have Shelton’s original story in mind but aim to modernize and temper it in a post-George Floyd world. There’s more observation than anger, more elbows nudging us in the ribs than raised fists.
I feel about the new “White Men Can’t Jump” about the same as I did the first: the idea of the movie is better than the one they made. I’d like to see a version of this story that gets a lot grittier, like exploring Jeremy’s drug habit and digging deeper into Kamal’s alpha-male conflict with his father.
But this is still a Disney production, and while I’m impressed at the harder edges they’ve drawn, they’re probably not ready to shoot from that deep just yet.