this came out when i was in jr. high and i remember being kinda pissed off by the title. in jr. high and high school i was a minority so seeing a popular movie title which belittles my race made me mad. i’m not saying that i suffered all that much as a result or that this is comparable to the plight of native americans or asians or blacks or middle easterners, but it still wasn’t fun. i guarantee that people at my school would have raised hell if a film entitled “black people can’t read/swim/fill-in-the-blank” did as well as this one did ($76 million at a time when that meant something, especially for a comedy). here’s the thing though – it’s a good film with a racial outlook vastly more complex than its title; and this is the nature of hollywood. often they’ll take a film like this and market it as an urban comedy or they’ll play up the action aspects of a film or…marketing isn’t about giving an accurate portrayal of the film’s themes or conflicts, rather it’s about filling seats. but you know all this.
what you may not know is that “white men can’t jump” could be the subject of a master’s thesis on race and gender. it presents a vastly complex matrix of relations, mores and roles that belie its title. it has the potential, with the right viewer, to be as thoughtful as spike lee’s jungle fever; and a hell of a lot more entertaining. this isn’t to slight jungle fever, which is a fantastic film with a great stevie wonder soundtrack and a great performance from samuel jackson. rather, it’s a compliment to white men can’t jump.
harrelson plays snipes and others like malcolm x played whites – he knows they’ll judge him by his appearance and he uses that to hustle them. harrelson and his puerto-rican girlfriend (rosie perez, in a career role) are the unemployed ones in financial trouble. snipes, meanwhile, has several jobs and his wife stays at home. he’s saving to buy a house, harrelson and perez are saving to pay off mobsters. mobsters who, by the way, are complete fakes. after they get their money they pose harrelson on a mattress to look as if he’s been killed while they take a polaroid, so that they can earn respect back home. there’s the obvious point that harrelson and snipes need each other to hustle other players. a cynic would point out that the races only get along in order make money, but that would discount the amicable ending between harrelson and snipes; it would also neglect the relationship of harrelson and perez which, by film’s end, looks to be back on the upswing.
there are still stereotypes in the film, but they’re made fun of and generally overcome by the end of the film. harrelson is goofy, feckless with money and unable to dunk. by the end of the film those have either been ameliorated or eliminated. snipes is a braggart and showboat without compassion for anyone outside of himself, or, at best, anyone outside of his race. by the end of the film he’s toned down and found some heart, but not in too mushy a way. perez makes good and goes on jeopardy and kicks some ass. she also does the right thing by putting her foot down with regards to harrelson and his gambling problems. throughout it all the film retains a great sense of humor (the opening sequence has great trash talking, the jimi hendrix conversation is great, snipes schooling harrelson [“listen to the woman”] at the end is priceless, etc.).