Hoop Dreams (1994): Seminal Documentary

Fine Line

I am usually suspicious when filmmakers or their distributors ask critics to use “discretion” in discussing the plots of their films. But in the case of the astonishing new documentary, Hoop Dreams, I perfectly understand the request.

Shot over a period of five years, this extraordinary film chronicles the true-life story of two African-American boys whose ultimate dream is to play in the NBA.

Boasting an epic scale and length (the film’s running time is close to three hours), Hoop Dreams, which I saw at its world premiere in the Sundance Film Festival, has more passion, compassion, and suspense than most Hollywood fictional pictures. It also features an absorbing analysis of the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of two high school boys in Chicago’s inner- city.

Leisurely paced, the film informs us about the everyday lives of two black players, their families and their schools. Plucked from the streets and given opportunity to attend a “white” prep school and play for a legendary high school coach, William Gates and Arthur Agee are two ordinary kids whose ambitions fly high.

However, they soon realize that their aspirations of NBA glory are more complex to achieve, due to all kinds of pressures, some anticipated while others unanticipated. There is, of course, the expected athletic competitiveness, and there’re also intense pressures based on their socio-economic status, family background, and the requirements of academic life.

William Gates, the more physically imposing of the two, speeds down the court with precision and drive. Arthur Agee, a quieter kid, is the more intuitive player, occasionally given to wild showoffs. The two boys are recruited by St. Joseph, a mostly white, suburban Catholic high school that boasts a powerhouse basketball program. They certainly can’t aspire higher, as it’s the same school that produced their idol, Isiah Thomas.

For a while, Hoop Dreams generates the excitement of a gritty, melodramatic fairy tale–a real-life Rocky, without the fake exterior and phony optimism of Sylvetser Stallone. Initially, like Rocky, both William and Arthur are inner-city underdogs determined to improve on their lot, make the most of the American Dream.

But then reality begins to impinge and interfere in its most complex, unpredictable ways. Arthur is tossed off the track. When his impoverished family can’t pay the tuition, he’s forced to leave St. Joseph and enroll in a run-down public school. Though this is just the first heartbreaking setback, it makes us realize right away that Hoop Dreams is not going to unfold as a rags-to-riches Hollywood saga.

Since most Hollywood sports pictures are basically success stories, we have come to expect our figures to triumph against all odds. But being a documentary, the filmmakers can’t manipulate or change the course of events. Which means that our reaction to their film is a mixture of hope and anxiety, cheerfulness and fear that the obstacles William and Arthur need to overcome might prove insurmountable. As the two make their way through school, their fortunes ebb and flow, at times taking a sudden shift, without any preparation or warning.

William suffers a knee injury, from which he recovers, but there’s doubt whether he will ever be able to play again with the same confidence and excellence. When William keeps retaking the ACTs, to qualify for a scholarship, Hoop Dreams makes us comprehend how disadvantaged black kids see sports as their only possible path to legitimate success. The film’s most tragic figure is William’s older brother, a former high school basketball star who’s now vastly disappointed–he serves as William’s negative role model, what he’s afraid of becoming.

Unabashedly ambitious, Hoop Dreams is about the chances of beating the odds in a culture that favors the privileged class and white race over those placed beneath. It is also about the risks and dangers of dreaming, and then falling flat on your face if your dreams fail to materialize.

In a more general and ideological way, Hoop Dreams, as the title indicates, is how the American Dream is perceived, interpreted and applied to people who live ordinary and shabby lives.

Filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx shot 250 hours of videotape, editing the footage down to 169 minutes. The texture of their film is serious and discursive–you really have to listen to the nuances and details as they pile up and form two cumulatively touching portraits. In moments, I felt I was watching too many talking-head interviews, but that’s a minor criticism. Overall, Hoop Dreams is a most satisfying emotional experience–it has high and low points, small melodramas and big dramas, without being excessively manipulative.

The making of Hoop Dreams, which won the Audience Award at Sundance, is itself an epic story. It took eight years of scavenging for cash and stretching personal relationships to the limit. “During the course of making this movie, there was one marriage, one divorce, and five children born among the three of us,” director James told an interviewer. “I don’t want to overstate this, but in the way that William and Arthur pay a price for their dreams in the film, the same was true for us.”


Oscar Nominations:

Film Editing: Frederick Marx, Steve James, and Bill Haugse

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The editing winner was Arthur Schmidt for Forrest Gump.