Directed by Steve James
Produced by Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx
In 1999, in his review of the best films of the decade, film critic Roger Ebert’s selection for the best film of the 1990s was surprising. In a decade that produced some of the most innovative, interesting, and compelling films in cinema history, his choice was surprising: Steve James‘ low-budget, three hour documentary Hoop Dreams. The film follows the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two inner city teenagers with superb basketball skills and ambitions of playing professional ball. Unlike many sports-playing inner city youth, the dream isn’t that far-fetched a notion for these young men. While in junior high, both are recruited by an elite private school. Hoop Dreams follows them from the recruitment and on through their graduation from high school.
Ebert wasn’t wrong in his assessment. Though a documentary, the Hoop Dreams story is told in such a manner that character arcs soon develop, and two distinct stories come together. William Gates, the friendly, outgoing kid, is quickly recognized as being on the level of local basketball legend Isiah Thomas–who, as it so happens, was a graduate of St. Joseph’s High School. Thomas was recruited in the same manner as Gates and Agee, and the school coach, the ball-busting powerhouse Gene Pingatore, sees Gates as a player with greater potential and ability than Thomas. Pingatore, recognizing a lesson he learned from the Isiah Thomas era, puts freshman Gates on the varsity team. Agee, too, is seen as a player with great potential, though he starts out on the freshman team.
But life has a way of developing its own plot changes. You may think you know where the story goes from this point, but you’d probably be wrong. As Hoop Dreams develops, the importance of the game fades into the background, focusing more on the family dynamics of Agee and Gates, and the off-court life of both players becomes as integral to the story. Both young men have dysfunctional backgrounds, but that dysfunction doesn’t hinder either; instead, the problems and obstacles they face serves as motivation to perform well. As one young man faces failure and disappointment, another faces nothing but overwhelming opportunity. It’s to James’ credit that he can tell this story in three hours, and he does so in such a manner that keeps the viewer entertained.
A cultural subtext underlies Hoop Dreams, but never in a way that becomes didactic. One can enjoy the film on an immediate level, but after the credits roll, the thought-provocation comes in.
Complex questions arise, and the answers aren’t exactly clear-cut. For instance: are these young men appreciated for being anything other than athletes? One might say that no, they aren’t, until one considers that these young men indeed have professional quality talent, and that talent can bring them out of the ghetto and the unfortunate trappings of poverty. There’s a trade-off, one that some viewers might be upset to witness, while others might recognizes as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that must be taken. No right answer exists, and what one might feel must be tempered with other factors. Hoop Dreams eviscerates the complexities of reality, leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
Naturally, there are some scenes that are quite winsome. Throughout the film, St. Joseph’s and Coach Pingatore come across in a negative light–caring more about the game and less about the players–and at times, the school’s actions are questionable and, ultimately, quite upsetting. It’s no surprise, then, that post-release, the school sued James for its unflattering portrayal, amongst other matters. One scene towards the end of the film shows Gates being asked by a coach if he met with “the leader of the blacks” at one of the schools he visited. The puzzlement at being asked such a question shows; on the commentary track, both Agee and Gates crack up at his ignorance and seeming innocence in asking the question. Another scene involves Gates attending a summer camp with the best high school basketball players in the country, and Spike Lee delivering some powerful, harsh words about the nature of where they stand in the eyes of the salivating coaches sitting in the stands.
There’s much to admire about Hoop Dreams; it’s an honest portrayal of the ups and downs of budding professional basketball players. It was well-received at the time–so much so that Agee figures, in one of the bonus segments of the collection, that he didn’t need to play professional basketball to obtain success; Hoop Dreams gave success and recognition in a way that professional basketball never did. In its own way, the film predicted the rise of reality television. In the commentary, both Agee and Gates discuss how they never received great financial gain from the film, though both agree the film has impacted their lives in much greater ways, in ways both good and bad, and that it still influences them to this day.
Hoop Dreams is a sports film, but it is so much more. You don’t have to be a sports lover to appreciate Hoop Dreams; as someone who is admittedly ignorant of the sport and has no interest in it, I must admit that the story and its numerous complexities and twists and turns captivated me, and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it. Hoop Dreams is cinéma vérité at its finest, proving that life itself can be much more entertaining–and much more complicated–than fiction.