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.
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.