Hoop Dreams

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


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.


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

3 thoughts on “Hoop Dreams

  1. I like Arthur. His part of the story keeps me amused be­cause he’s very funny and he cracks me up! 🙂

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