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  • Manny Labram

White Men Can't Jump, 1992 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose.”


White Men Can’t Jump is a 1992 sports comedy film written and directed by Ron Shelton. Set in the hard-hustle streets of L.A. the film stars Woody Harrison as Billy Hoyle, and Wesley Snipes as Sidney Deane as two street basketball hustlers. The two form an unlikely partnership in order to win basketball matches, and con money out of their opponents, despite the two’s racial and cultural differences.


The film opens with grainy textured shots of Billy pulling up in his drop top at Venice beach. With its retro golden filter and a soulful old school street performing trio, the film immediately feels like a 90s classic. Billy appears as a common stereotypical white man. He wears a brown wax jacket over an open Hawaiian shirt with a tie-dye hat. He approaches the soulful buskers, and dances a pretty un-soulful jig. As he speaks to the music trio, we can already feel that Woody Harrison is a great pick for the role. He sounds corny, but at the same time likeable. His demeanour is dorky, but interesting at the same time.


We follow Billy onto the outdoor basketball courts where the raw, in-your-face tone is set for the entire film. Billy watches as Sidney and his team mates get into an argument over the score in their match. There’s high energy, big personalities, and heavy, but hilarious, trash talk. The players go from insulting each other, to insulting each other’s mothers. The scene is very provocative with its rapid-fire one liners. Wesley Snipes’ energy playing Sidney does not go unnoticed. Sidney leads his team with not only exceptional skills on the court, but also with witty comebacks and insults above par compared to the other characters. Billy is eventually subbed into the match against Sidney. All the players believe Billy won’t be much used based on him being white. He seems out of place on the court. But it’s all a con. Much to their surprise, Billy is a talented basketballer, and helps his team win against Sidney. This leads to a 1-on-1 jumpshot bet between Billy and Sidney.


“Doesn't this guy look like one of those motherfuckers from The Brady Bunch?”


The first bet between Billy and Sidney is interesting as it mirrors the later challenge between the two. Billy gets into Sidney’s head, taunting him by saying “If you miss then you’ve been beat by, well, a slow, white, geeky, chump.” Sidney does in fact lose to Billy, and Billy successfully cons him out of his money.


After that, we delve a bit deeper into the story of the two main characters. Billy’s situation is that he and his girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), are on the run from a pair of mobsters who they owe money to. Gloria is a stereotypical fiery Latina, not afraid to say what’s on her mind. She has dreams of going on the game show Jeopardy! to which she extensively studies random general knowledge and trivia questions. In Sidney’s case, he wants to provide for his wife Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell) and child, and move out the ghetto.


Sidney comes to Billy, and proposes the two partner up in order to hustle other street ballers. The duo do well together and win a game. However, in the next match Sidney hustles Billy by purposely throwing the game, serving as a double agent for the opposing team. Now having evenly scammed one and other, the two reluctantly pair up for a 2v2 basketball tournament for a big money prize.


“Teammates can't hustle each other.”

“Oh really? Why not?”

“It's not artistic.”


The tournament offers more of the same entertaining, well-choreographed basketball sequences, plus the sharp witty dialogue. This time Billy comedically leads the charge in terms of trash-talking his opponents. Billy and Sidney come away with the victory, and all seems well. That is until Sidney goads Billy into a 3 attempt slam-dunk bet after mocking Billy by saying he can’t dunk. True to title Billy fails his 3 attempts and loses his half of the money to Sidney. This leads to Billy and Rosie separating, after Billy comes home with nothing.


In an effort to get Rosie back, Billy partners up once again with Sidney, who has a friend who is a security guard for Jeopardy! They pull some strings and get Rosie onto the game show, and she is able to live out her dream to great success and win $14,100 on the first episode. Billy and Rosie get back together, but their relationship is put to the test when Sidney comes to Billy asking for one last partner up to hustle another match as Sidney’s house has been burgled and needs the money. Unable to resist, Billy chooses basketball over Rosie, resulting in their final breakup, this time for good.


The final basketball match is a short, slow-motion cut sequence where Billy and Sidney win the game with Sidney throwing an alley-oop and Billy dunking it into the net, proving that he, and thus all white men, can in fact dunk. Billy pays off the mobsters, and the film ends with Billy and Sidney about to get into another bet against each other in a Rocky 3-esque cliff hanger.


​​What sets White Men Can't Jump apart from other sports comedies is its ability to transcend the basketball court. The film delves into the complexities of race, class, and friendship, providing a thought-provoking narrative beneath its lighthearted exterior. The most obvious racial assumption the film tackles is that white people can’t play basketball, or at least can’t dunk. Billy uses this bias to his advantage and is able to get the jump on the bulk of the black characters.


But the film is by no means a white invasion into black sports and culture. Billy and Sidney are put on the same level concrete playing field in terms of class. They both are in the same low socio-economic background. Sidney embodies the streetwise hustler working several jobs, trying to provide for his family. Whereas Billy reflects a more desperate, down on his luck, con man, trying to win big. The two main characters are very much two sides of the same coin; both doing everything in their power to get themselves off the streets. It is for this reason they are able to put aside their differences and work together. And when together, their chemistry is electric. They are able to push each other's buttons, and at the same time give each other valuable words of wisdom. Them being such great frenemies not only adds to the humour, but gives way for the film to touch on the mentioned racial topics in a way that is welcoming and playful.


“I don't like the word "screw," OK? I prefer "make love" or "fuck." Screwing is for carpenters.”


Rosie Perez delivers an outstanding performance as Gloria. She’s bad-tempered and confrontational, all the while sweet and charming. Her dream to go on Jeopardy! is relatable and at the same time absurd. She speaks nonsense, but is wise. Rosie lights up every scene she’s in and is definitely my favourite character from the movie.


Coming in at the March Spring of 1992, White Men Can’t Jump screams 80s and 90s nostalgia. The outfits worn by the cast are a stylish mix of low-cut singlets, pastel and graphic tees, long socks, basketball jerseys, folded snapbacks, and high-cropped sports tops. The athleisure wear and overall early 80s/90s aesthetic make the sports comedy visually a pleasure to watch.


Viewers will most likely applaud its brash dialogue. There are so many great one liners for audiences to save for later. It very much fits the zeitgeist of the time where spectators enjoyed the boasts, brags, and taunts from sports players much more than they do so now. As long as those doing it could back it up. Which is what White Men Can’t Jump does effectively. Sure, sometimes the characters get personal. But there is a sense of respect felt amongst them that comes from them all being in the same, and at times relatable, difficult situation of trying to make ends meet.


“ I told your mother to act her age and the bitch dropped dead”


There has been a remake of White Men Can’t Jump in 2023, featuring Jack Harlow and Sinqua Walls. I have not seen the remake, so cannot speak on it too much. The remake has received a lot of criticism due to the fact it does not offer the same entertaining trash-talking writing as the original. For me, I thought it quite predictable that it would not be able to live up to the original. Simply because the original is really a product of its time. It’s a story I don’t think translates to the modern day for a few reasons. The attention on racial divide in America right now is much more focused on authority and not the average working class Joe. So the division between the two main characters would likely feel backwards. Also, I don’t think the current generation enjoy the type of humour that is in the original. I think current Hollywood humour is much more self-deprecating towards Hollywood itself and Hollywood tropes. A lot of well received comedy films of today poke fun at themselves - think Knives Out, Meg 2, or The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.


“You calling me ugly?”

“Your mother did.”


The original, however, isn’t without its flaws. White Men Can’t Jump loses momentum during a lot of its non-basketball moments. Billy’s mobster subplot feels shoehorned and flat. The film does not go into much detail as to why Billy got involved with them in the first place. The mobsters don’t have a lot of screen time further emphasising they have only been written into the film to create tension. This makes their tough guy facade punchline at the end of the film feel like a flop.


Pacing is another problem. The third act is very rushed. Billy not being able to dunk was not obvious to me during the film, considering how well he played in all the other basketball scenes prior to his slam dunk bet with Sidney. Which, in turn, made the bet seem a bit silly and not very developed.


How Gloria was able to sneak onto Jeopardy! is completely ignored. Yes, Sidney’s friend was a security guard, so there is some creative licence on how she got into the audience. But how she actually became a contestant is a blur. It is a shame considering how entertaining she was on the game show.


Lastly, there is no build up to the final basketball game. Considering the film centres around basketball, you would think the final opponents would have been depicted as unbeatable or very dangerous. However, the only tension is that Billy has once again made the wrong choice, he will likely lose his relationship with Gloria as a result. The match itself is one of the quickest in the entire movie. The choice to make Billy’s game winning dunk an assisted alley-oop, and not a self slam dunk, slightly took away from the would-be epic moment.


Ultimately, White Men Can't Jump is a hilarious and heartfelt comedy that tackles important themes with grace and humour. Its enduring appeal lies in its ability to blend comedy, sports, and social commentary. Without trying to be something that it is not, it's a film that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. The film loses firepower in the plot and pacing. However, with its memorable characters and witty dialogue, the film has excellent replay value. This classic basketball comedy remains a slam dunk of laughter and friendship that will leave you cheering for more.

Overall rating - 8


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