THE FILM THAT STUNNED A NATION!
This is one of those films you can’t help but admire because people worked so hard on it. It became a breakthrough piece for documentary filmmaker Steve James, who devoted several years of his life to a story about teens with hoop dreams. A lot of critics treated the film as one of the best documentaries ever made, and when the film wasn’t nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, it became such a scandal that it even helped change Academy Award rules.
It did deserve a nomination, but the sheer amount of basketball in this film eventually becomes a burden to someone like me, a guy who couldn’t care less about sports.
Director James introduces us to two black 14-year-olds from Chicago. They both dream of one day starring in the NBA, and they’re pretty good at basketball. Arthur Agee and William Gates are spotted by a talent scout representing St. Joseph’s High School, a suburban school where young men and women might actually have a chance to learn something as well as embark on a promising career in basketball. There are several similarities between Arthur and William, but they have different experiences at St. Joseph’s. Arthur lacks discipline and his unwillingness to study becomes the reason why he eventually must leave the school. William, on the other hand, has a brighter future already from the beginning, but a knee injury threatens to put a stop to his career, and then his girlfriend gets pregnant.
All this sounds like clichés, but this is life. Sometimes it feels like you know exactly what’s going to happen, sometimes you haven’t got a clue. A few years later it looks like Arthur and William have switched basketball careers. Suddenly, it is Arthur who is considered the most promising player, but start living like an adult is not something he seems ready to do. William has turned into quite a responsible young man who takes care of his daughter. He has a lot of things on his mind, but he realizes that his coach at St. Joseph’s, Gene Pingatore, doesn’t have many answers at all, and basketball begins to have a smaller impact on William’s life.
Hoping for a better tomorrow
Several colorful people influence the lives of these boys, such as the no-nonsense coach and Arthur’s dad, who beats a drug addiction. Circling above the whole scene are the vultures, the agents and the scouts, constantly prowling the projects and the high school courts, looking for new blood to make them rich. The movie shows how their promises are not always grounded in reality, but also how one must take responsibility for one’s own life and think about what happens the day when the career in basketball is over. Most boys will never play in the NBA, but the hoop dreams are strong and they keep thousands of young black men all over the country hoping for a better tomorrow. Is that good or bad? All James tells us is that it’s part of life.
Three hours long, this film is a moving but exhausting journey. The director has caught a fair share of Crucial Moments that every documentary should have, like a tear running discreetly down someone’s cheek. If only James had cut some of the basketball footage, this would have been an entirely compelling slice of life.
Hoop Dreams 1994-U.S. 169 min. Color. Produced by Frederick Marx, Steve James, Peter Gilbert. Directed by Steve James. Screenplay: Steve James, Frederick Marx.
Trivia: The movie helped change Academy Award rules for the category of Best Documentary. Very few documentary filmmakers were allowed to vote in this category, which is one reason Hoop Dreams failed to get a nomination. The rules changed when this became public knowledge.
Quote: “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)
Last word: “In ‘Hoop Dreams’ we started out really thinking at first that we were making a film about the basketball dreams of these inner city kids, but part way through the film we realized we had a much bigger story we were trying to tell. We were really trying to tell the story of an American dream, as it were, through these two families and not through these two kids. And just how tenuous it is and how hard it is to achieve for kids, the basketball dream became sort of a metaphor for the American dream. Now that’s sort of a nice theme to articulate, but we were experiencing it in very real and practical ways, through the lives of these kids and these families, so the film became much more about that.” (James, Stumped Magazine)