Hoop Dreams

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #289: Peter Gilbert’s, Steve James’s, and Fred­er­ick Marx’s Hoop Dreams.

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I nev­er real­ly want­ed to watch this movie again. I saw it twice in col­lege dur­ing my His­to­ry of Doc­u­men­tary Film class [along with Nanook of the North] and as it is near­ly 3 hours long, it is quite a time invest­ment. Hoop Dreams is a trou­bling film, both cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly and con­tex­tu­al­ly. These aspects are, of course, inter-relat­ed, but I’m going to attempt to deal with them as sep­a­rate­ly as I can.

First, cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly. As a doc­u­men­tary, Hoop Dreams pro­vides a lev­el of inti­ma­cy with its sub­jects that many oth­er docs attempt but ulti­mate­ly fail at. This gives the entire film an authen­tic­i­ty that is per­haps a bit too strong, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the inevitable effects that the film­mak­ers had on their sub­jects’ lives. They have the role of par­tic­i­pant-observers but it quite easy to see them manip­u­late the action for their desired ends. This is most notable with Arthur Agee, who is plied with ques­tions about Isi­ah Thomas on the way to a bas­ket­ball camp and then gets to play him one-on-one with his hero. This event was staged, but there is impromp­tu manip­u­la­tion as well; when, years lat­er, he is prompt­ed by the film­mak­ers to read a report on but­ter­flies that high­lights Arthur’s gram­mar-school lev­el edu­ca­tion and gen­er­al embarass­ment and dis­re­gard for school.

In some sense every char­ac­ter in the film is an actor; so-and-so as him- or her­self. At times they ham for the cam­era, and at oth­ers pre­tend as if it isn’t present. Per­haps the eas­i­est exam­ple to show the prevalance of this cliché in the film is when William’s team fails to go down-state his senior year. The film­mak­ers get right up in his face as he walks off, and the bare­ly restrained frus­tra­tion and rage is evi­dent. This moment does not fea­ture William Gates as him­self, but mere­ly William Gates, a young man who feels the pres­ence of the film­mak­ers as a tan­gi­ble reminder of his failed promise. William is no longer the sub­ject of a film in this moment, but a per­son again. Arthur has a sim­i­lar moment, while play­ing one-on-one with his unsta­ble father, when he states “This ain’t no con game any­more. I’m old­er now.”

The film­mak­ers manip­u­late the audi­ence as eas­i­ly as they do their sub­jects. The film is delib­er­ate­ly con­struct­ed so that we expect William to be the high school star and go to the pros and Arthur to fail. This becomes invert­ed fair­ly quick­ly as William is trou­bled by knee injuries and Arthur emerges as the one with the abil­i­ty to lead his team down-state. Sim­i­lar­ly, William’s child and girl­friend are intro­duced to us as a sur­prise, after the baby has been born for sev­er­al months. The drug-addic­tion of Arthur’s father is sim­i­lar­ly absent, until it serves as a plot spark.

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Con­tex­tu­al­ly the film jux­ta­pos­es the mod­ern slave-mar­ket of bas­ket­ball recruit­ment with the hopes of two ghet­to kids for NBA star­dom. Rich white per­son after rich white per­son sees a mon­ey-mak­er in William Gates, and tal­ent scouts read­i­ly admit that they focus on serv­ing “gourmet meat.” William is intel­li­gent enough to not ful­ly com­mit him­self to this sys­tem, to make an effort at the edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties offered to him, but his unwill­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice him­self on the hard­wood altar ulti­mate­ly earns him the scorn of his loath­some high school bas­ket­ball coach, a man so jad­ed that when his star ath­lete leaves his office for the last time he shrugs “Anoth­er one leaves, anoth­er one comes in, that’s the way it goes.”

Due to con­stant reminders of The Insti­tu­tion of bas­ket­ball, there is lit­tle focus on oth­er paths of oppor­tu­ni­ty for these kids. When Arthur Agee sur­pris­ing­ly gets a vis­it to a junior col­lege, he has no idea what he wants to do with his life, he men­tions account­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and real estate, a dif­fer­ent answer for each time the ques­tion is asked. William, plagued by injury, seems to rec­og­nize that he needs anoth­er path if his dream dies, but he is sur­round­ed by peo­ple who have pinned their dreams on his bas­ket­ball abil­i­ty and don’t want to hear about any­thing else.

In the end we’re left with a film that points out how fleet­ing the dream of bas­ket­ball glo­ry can be for ghet­to youth, but offers no oth­er alter­na­tives for the bet­ter­ment of the kids. Yes, bas­ket­ball has got­ten them into high­er edu­ca­tion, but with­out a safe­ty net bas­ket­ball could just as eas­i­ly kick them out of it again. Com­bined with the slick manip­u­la­tion in the edit­ing suite, we’re left just as bereft as Arthur and William, unsure, chimeric. Hoop Dreams, not real­i­ty.

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by John Edgar Wide­man
Roger Ebert Review
• Hoop Dreams Schol­ar­ship Fund
Com­pre­hen­sive Hoop Dreams site that may or may not be out­dat­ed.