Hollywood Flashback: ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ First Scored 31 Years Ago

·3-min read

During a fraught time for L.A., the team behind the 1992 original White Men Can’t Jump took a shot on a personal story about the bonds forged through pickup basketball.

Writer-director Ron Shelton — who had helmed 1988’s Bull Durham, earning himself an Oscar nom for the script — got the idea for the film from his weekday routine: After working on screenplays in the morning, he would head to the Hollywood YMCA near his office to shoot hoops at lunch. White Men producer David V. Lester recalls Shelton’s fascination with the athletes’ squabbles and chatter.

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“It annoyed him at first because he just wanted a workout, but the writer in him saw the magic of these moment-to-moment relationships on the basketball court,” Lester tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In the comedy, L.A. streetball players Sidney (Wesley Snipes) and Billy (Woody Harrelson) team up to hustle competitors who take Billy for an easy mark based on his looks. Actors auditioning for the leads had to prove their skills on the court; Harrelson was a lifelong player and more adept than Snipes, who didn’t have a basketball background but benefited from his training in dance and martial arts. Rosie Perez’s spirited take on Billy’s girlfriend, Gloria, at her audition led filmmakers to retool the character, who was more uptight in the original script.

White Men Can't Jump
Tyra Ferrell, Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez from White Men Can’t Jump

Tyra Ferrell played Sidney’s wife, Rhonda, and appreciated that she and Snipes were able to depict a positive onscreen relationship between a Black couple who support each other. The actress, who co-starred with Snipes in Jungle Fever (1991) but didn’t share scenes with him in that film, recalls encouraging Shelton to consider the power he wielded in casting the role of Rhonda.

“At my audition, in my final conversation on the way out of the room with Ron, I vividly remember saying to him, ‘Ron, if you don’t choose me, please choose a sister that looks like a sister — with full lips, ethnic nose, dark skin — so that we have positive representation out there. We dark-skinned sisters out here are hurting by not being represented and loving our men,'” Ferrell says.

20th Century Fox released the film on March 27, 1992, and it collected $76 million ($164 million today). The movie was embraced by critics, with THR’s review heralding it as a “poetic, ragtag triumph.”

Lester remembers hearing some criticism at the time that the film’s title was racist, which he says could not be more wrong. “What the story did artfully, and is almost invisible, is it really demonstrated how races can operate together and where the advantages might be,” he says. “Taking it on like that was not something that anybody was terribly comfortable with. But that’s where Fox showed their stuff and let us do it.”

Ferrell praises the film — released almost exactly a year after Rodney King was assaulted by LAPD officers, and a month before the unrest that followed their acquittal — for centering on one of “very few venues where Black men can truly express their power,” namely the basketball court. “Ron Shelton basically broke the ice and showed where we could come together. What he did was explored it through a sports comedy within the backdrop of Black family dynamics and interracial relationships.”

The film’s legacy lives on, as director Calmatic’s remake of the same name, starring Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow, hits Hulu on May 19. Snipes tells THR that he attributes his version’s staying power to “the feel-good effect the film has on the viewer.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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