A film like "Hoop Dreams" is what the movies are for.
It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.
It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.
Roger Ebert, in reviewing Hoop Dreams
People always say to me, "When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me."
Well, I should've said back, "If I don't make it to the NBA, don't you forget about me."
William Gates, Hoop Dreams
A documentary about William Gates and Arthur Agee
Directed by Steve James
Produced by Frederick Marx, James and Peter Gilbert
Hoop Dreams is a 1994 documentary following the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young African-American males who, at the start of the film, are both among the elite young basketball players in the city of Chicago, Illinois. The film starts out in their eighth grade year as the pair are being recruited to a local magnet high school to play basketball, and concludes by covering their first year of post-high school activities. On another level, however, this documentary is about much more elemental forces: greed, corruption, ambition, race, economics, and the harsh realities of life in the Chicago ghettos.
It is the most powerful documentary I've ever watched.
It would be intensely disrespectful to a film of this magnitude to merely give a play-by-play rundown of the events and follow it up with a cast list. In fact, every time one sits down and thinks about the complex picture that Hoop Dreams presents, a different set of ideas, thoughts, emotions, and questions come pouring out.
To this end, the rest of this writeup is a series of short essays that were each attempts at writing a backbone for an overall writeup about Hoop Dreams. Taken all together, they provide a better glimpse at this film than a rundown would ever provide.
Making Hoop Dreams
Hoop Dreams evoked more than basketball fantasies and frustrations.
It reminded me of the scariness, the loneliness, the utter devastation
of being a fifteen year old with the world on a string
and suddenly, somehow, the string gets snipped.
The bottom falls out, you with it.
John Edgar Wideman, from the Hoop Dreams Criterion Collection DVD
Hoop Dreams started in 1986 as a 30 minute short intending to show the rise of youth basketball throughout Chicago, but once the filmmakers became familiar with the lives of the two main subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, the film took on a new direction. Over a period of almost six years (1986-1992), Steve James and a number of cameramen followed Gates and Agee as they moved forward from being promising eighth grade basketball prospects to their college years.
What's so compelling about this? The basketball itself is merely the periphery here. Rather than just being an And1 mix tape, the focus of the film is actually on the boys themselves, taking a snapshot of their complete life, not just a photograph in Sports Illustrated with a ball in their hands.
Throughout the six years this documentary covers, Arthur and William grow from being eighth graders with the world on a string to young men who have seen both the ups and downs of a life that has dealt both of them some truly harsh cards. This is where this movie departs from the spit-and-polish of such basketball movies as Hoosiers: we don't really get the happy ending here.
This documentary was almost rescued in a way in 1994 by Gene Siskel and (especially) Roger Ebert, who took a giant risk and reviewed this film on their television program before it had a distributor or any plans for being shown in theaters. It was due to their effort, particularly Ebert, that enabled this film to be viewed by a larger audience. Their regular promotion of this incredible film made it possible for me to see it, and has led to it today being available on DVD in an exquisite Criterion Collection release.
Spike Lee and Dick Vitale: Separating Perception from Reality
It's a meat market, and we're trying to serve the best meat we can.
Frank DuBois, director of the Nike ABCD basketball camp
During the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, William Gates is invited to the Nike ABCD basketball camp, which collects together the top high school players in the country for college basketball recruiters. This scene stands out a bit from the rest because it's the most obvious intervention of "big money" into the film.
At the start of the camp, Dick Vitale speaks to all of the participants: "While you’re sitting here today, you should feel like a million dollars. You should feel so special. You’re one of a hundred of the best high school players in this country. My Mother - God bless her, she’s in heaven today - she always said to me: This is America! You can make something of your life!"
Vitale is attempting to paint a rosy picture of what the camp actually is: a meat market. When the camera shows the crowd, many of the kids are disinterested in Vitale's speech for that very reason: they see a man up there telling them what they already know, that this is their time to take the next step if they are going to.
Later in the camp, a contrasting perspective: Spike Lee appears and speaks to a number of them, apparently just the African-American camp participants: "You’ve got to realize that nobody cares about you. You’re black, you’re male; all you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here is you can make their team win. And if their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money."
Spike Lee is feeding the boys a rather petty bourgeois perspective on the situation. He has an opportunity here as a black leader to actually speak to the future of these kids, and instead he perpetuates an empty myth of racism. Obviously, racism still exists today, but Lee plays it as though everyone who is not black is out to get these kids, and it's simply not true.
These kids look up to people like Lee and then Lee responds with a racist rhetoric that they are quite likely to believe if they're not careful.
So often, people look at successful high school athletes and believe that they somehow have it made, and that's a very flawed perspective. Many of the social obstacles that others have are gone for them, but they are thrust into a completely different world full of sharks, and with people like Spike Lee dispensing advice like this, it is very difficult for a sixteen year old to have any sort of realistic view of the world.
The Economic Class System: How It Crushes Dreams
Do you ever ask yourself how I get by on $268 a month
and keep this house and feed these children?
Do you ever ask yourself that question?
Shiela Agee, Arthur's mother
Arthur Agee isn't as fortunate as William and is forced out of St. Joseph's and back to the playgrounds of his childhood to develop his game. The primary reason? He didn't shine as brightly as William did on the freshman basketball team and thus his scholarship evaporated. His family, unable to afford the tuition costs of the private school, enrolled Arthur in a public school.
William's family was in a similar financial situation, but William was also a starter on the varsity team. The school managed to come up with a scholarship for William, while Arthur leaves the school.
The almighty dollar raises its head again.
What does it say about an economic and education system that allows students to lose everything in a moment, forcing children to worry about so many things and walk such a tightrope when their lives should be full of learning and joy?
These children aren't children in the way many of us think of it. They are bearing the weight of the dreams of so many of their families; they know that their basketball dreams are costing their family and they know if they take a single mis-step it's all lost.
The Agees spend most of this film in the most dire of financial straits. Arthur has a great talent, but the fact that his entire childhood is balanced on the edge of a nickel means that it is no longer about learning and improving himself, but about trying as hard as he can not to drop the weight that is suspended on his shoulders.
This is childhood lost.
The Weakness of Bo Agee
You want to see it rain? Let it rain!
Bo Agee, Arthur's father
With Arthur, you repeatedly see a young man who desperately needs some positive guidance in his life as his dreams are slowly slipping through his fingers.
His best hope at a positive role model is his father, Bo Agee. Bo is tormented desperately by his own demons, and after losing two jobs during the early part of the movie, he turns to drugs just as Arthur is needing him the most. There is no question that Bo loves Arthur and tries hard to support his son, but at the same time the demons are chasing him.
One of the most intense scenes in the movie shows Arthur practicing on a concrete lot somewhere in the urban jungle of Chicago with his father watching in the background. As the shot progresses, you see Arthur playing, but eventually the camera begins to follow Bo, who proceeds to buy crack while his son is out there playing, playing desperately to get out of this urban nightmare.
Within six months, Bo Agee has left his family behind entirely, leaving Arthur without a father and in fact leaving him alone as the oldest male in the household.
The biggest different between William and Arthur is the positive guidance in their life, a role model to look up to. William had it; Arthur did not. William was able to remain at St. Joseph's, while Arthur did not. William went to basketball camps and was heavily recruited by top college teams; Arthur did not.
Bo Agee loved his son, but love wasn't enough.
The Evolution of the Dream: William and Arthur's Story in Today's World
If Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert were to revisit the subject today,
they could make one hell of a film, but it would be a very different one.
It would be a road movie.
Alexander Wolff, from the Hoop Dreams Criterion Collection DVD
Most of William and Arthur's high school journey occurred around 1990, when high school basketball recruiting was just getting organized and the kids didn't even consider the possibility of jumping straight to the NBA. Most of the summer, William and Arthur played on playgrounds, only going to a camp or two, because that's all there was to do. Each day, they faced gang violence, drugs, theft, and other crimes on a level that we can scarcely conceive of. Yet, somehow, even then they had the opportunity to grow up, to discover who they are. As pressured and challenged as their childhoods were, Arthur and William still had the freedom to walk down the sidewalk to play basketball with their friends.
Flash forward to today. Most of the top level high schoolers of recent years, such as LeBron James and OJ Mayo, play basketball for the entire calendar year. Even as early as seventh grade, kids are playing throughout the year: they play on their school's team for three months, then on an "all star" team for a few months, then spend most of the summer attending basketball camps, then another "all star" team for a few months, then back to their own school to start the cycle over. They spend most of their teenage years on the road, travelling from town to town, playing basketball in a bubble, surrounded by recruiters and agents all out to make a buck off of these kids.
This is not childhood. This is a shark tank that most adults would either avoid or get lost in, let alone teenagers with fragile egos and pliable minds.
Dreams At The Oscars
The committee found five better pictures, is the glib explanation.
Bruce Davis, executive director, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
on the snubbing of Hoop Dreams as a nominee for Best Documentary
After the film's appearance on a plethora of Top 10 Lists of all films in 1994 (often near the top, along with Pulp Fiction), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shockingly did not nominate Hoop Dreams for Best Documentary, let alone Best Picture.
While Maya Lin (the winner) and A Great Day in Harlem were both strong documentaries, the other three nominees (Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, D-Day Remembered, and Freedom on My Mind) were not particularly strong choices. As a direct result of the snubbing of Hoop Dreams (and the snubbing of such great documentaries as Roger & Me and The Thin Blue Line in the years preceding 1995), the process for selecting the nominees for Best Documentary were drastically changed, restricting the overall number of submissions for the category and enabling each film to actually be viewed by the voting committee.
Personally, I feel the snubbing of Hoop Dreams for Best Picture that year was also a crime. The nominees for that award were Forrest Gump (winner), Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, and The Shawshank Redemption. While I'll not begrudge that Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption deserved nomination, I also feel that Hoop Dreams was in that caliber, while Quiz Show and especially Four Weddings and a Funeral were not.
Thankfully, the selections in recent years by the Academy in this category have been much stronger and more relevant to the times (yes, I think Bowling for Columbine was deserving of the win and Super Size Me was deserving of a nomination).
The Emotional Power of Film
Why have so few films followed its lead -- its patience, dedication, undogmatic, unpretentious point of view
its living with and through its characters' daily lives
foregrounding these lives so they bear witness?
John Wideman, from the Hoop Dreams Criterion Collection DVD
Films use all sorts of tricks to find emotional resonance with the audience. Some trick us into fear with frightening images and stories. Others touch our hearts with romance or a yearning for something that escapes us. Hoop Dreams manages to create emotional resonance without such obvious tricks; instead, it relies on the most fundamental tenet of storytelling.
There is no movie trick at work here at all, yet by the end of the film, you find yourself feeling desperately for these two young men, simply because of their life. They were both dealt hands to play with and played them strongly and sincerely, and in them both you find the kind of people that you want to see succeed in life because at their core William Gates and Arthur Agee are me and you.
Most of us didn't grow up in urban Chicago, nor did most of us have the opportunity to even dream of playing professional basketball. Yet the humanity of William and Arthur and the things we see in their lives and experiences resonate with us and we are able for a few fleeting seconds to put ourselves into their shoes, feel intense excitement at their dreams and desperate sadness at their failures, and come out the other side feeling as though something about us as fundamentally changed.
It takes something special for me to cry in a film, and I've only done it twice. I cried at the end of Field of Dreams, tears for my grandfather and me and our shared bond of baseball. And I cried at two points in Hoop Dreams, because I could see the bottom falling out of the lives of two people that I had come to care for while watching.
Hoop Dreams is an exceptional film made by exceptional filmmakers that does what so many others try to do but fail: it speaks to the inner humanity.
Near the end of Hoop Dreams, William Gates is standing at the free throw line, holding a basketball in his hands. Much of William's story has led up to this point: his family is in the stands watching, and the coach that he has shared a love-hate relationship with for four years is on the sidelines, staring at him intently. If this shot goes in, his school continues onward to the state championships; if he misses, they go home and the last memory of his high school career will be one of failure.
I've watched Hoop Dreams so many times, and this scene always cuts me to the core. There is so much weight on his shoulders here: the hopes of his family, the expectations of his coach, the empty promises of college recruiters. William stands there and prepares to shoot, and his eyes look almost empty, as though it has finally reached a point where it is just too much for his slender shoulders to handle.
He shoots, and the ball rolls on the rim a bit before falling off. I close my eyes to stop a tear from rolling down my cheek.
These are hoop dreams.