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Hoop Dreams
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by Aaron West

"Perhaps the most insightful portrayal of inner-city youth ever."
5 stars

The American national pastime may be Baseball, but the obsession of inner-city youth is undoubtedly basketball. Not only is it the most popular sport, but it’s also the only possible ticket out of the ghetto for many underprivileged children. The movie Hoop Dreams explores all these themes and more – the obsession of the sport, the motivation to become the best, the difficulties of inner city life, and the people who take advantage of those in the interest of their own gain.

Hoop Dreams was mostly the brainchild of three men, Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, all of whom performed various roles throughout the project. Their original intent was to simply cover the mentality of inner-city youth and how it relates to the sport of basketball. During the early shooting period, they discovered two young boys in Chicago’s Cabrini Green ghetto, Arthur Agee and William Gates. Both showed tremendous potential in their basketball talents. From that moment on, the scope of the project evolved, although the overall theme remained more or less the same. The filmmaking team dedicated four years of their lives exploring the outcomes of these gifted boys, documenting the triumphs and pitfalls that both young men endured. The project ended as the boy’s high school careers ended. The result was one of the most insightful documentaries ever made, not just about basketball, but about the harsh realities of life within the projects.

As is typical within predominate African-American populated inner city districts, both Agee and Gates were discovered by local scouts on the paved, outdoor courts. These aren’t the stereotypical scouts seen at high school and college games, usually wearing sharp clothes and taking detailed notes on various players. Instead they are ordinary men from the neighborhood. Most do it for the small paycheck, but also for the opportunity to help some children get out of the community. The children usually end up recruited by a local high school, oftentimes located far outside of the downtown dwellings, in upper class suburbia.

Both Agee and Gates end up playing for St. Joseph’s High, a catholic school with a long basketball history. The school's celebrity highlight was Isiah Thomas, a basketball hall-of-famer who is widely considered to be among the best point guards to ever play the game. Both kids fall under the tutelage of coach Gene Pingatore, although their stories are quite different. Gates becomes the golden buy, dubbed as such by the illustrious Chicago press, and is the first freshman ever to start at point guard for the Varsity team. Agee, on the other hand, shows potential, but isn’t nearly as favored and ends up playing point for the Freshman squad.

Ironically, of the two, Agee is probably the most obsessed and committed towards reaching the NBA. St. Joseph’s is the perfect match for him simply because Isiah Thomas is his boyhood idol. He even goes so far as taking on Thomas’ early nickname Tuss. Early on he shows a genuine love for the game, and probably makes more of a sacrifice with his newfound opportunity. Gates, on the other hand, is more casual about basketball and takes things more in stride. Agee has to take public transportation to the school, a 4 hour trip each way, while Gates gets a ride from his older brother. Agee’s parents are probably slightly worse off financially than the Gates, simply because of that brother and his job as a security guard. Despite Agee’s determination and Gates’ relative indifference, the children take almost opposing paths at the school. Agee is a loose cannon, constantly getting into trouble and underachieving with his studies. Gates asserts himself and excels at his studies, quickly becoming popular with both students and faculty. During their sophomore year both kids end up struggling to meet the tuition requirement. A sponsor is found for Gates, while Agee is forced to leave the school. It’s unfortunate considering Agee’s insatiable thirst for all things basketball, but this is just one of many ways Hoop Dreams shows us that life isn’t always fair.

What makes Hoop Dreams stand heads above the rest is the depth in which they capture these people’s lives, especially the Agee family, as they struggle to keep themselves housed and fed. In one scene, we see the family with their power turned off, living in the darkness. In another startling scene, the documentarians capture Bo Agee, Arthur’s father, transacting a drug deal at the outdoor playground where his child is playing ball. Scenes such as these show what the kids are up against, how hard they must fight, which makes us invest in their situations all the more. This pays off dividends in what I consider the most powerful scene in the movie. Later, Agee’s mother turns to nursing school in the hope of making their lives better. She fights hard, just like Arthur does on the basketball court, and is rewarded with the highest score in the class. Her enthusiastic reaction to the news is captured on film, and inspires similar emotional reaction (albeit on a lesser scale) to anyone watching the movie.

The filmmakers made a terrific decision in choosing to follow two children instead of one. The stories of both players contrast each other throughout the narrative. For instance, when Arthur is thrown out of St. Joseph’s, William is becoming the next big thing, receiving constant recruitment letters from college, and quickly establishing himself as the leader of the team. Later in his high school career, William suffers a knee injury, which ironically is around the same time that Arthur starts coming into his own with his new school, Marshall. Naturally the filmmakers didn’t plan these misfortunes, nor would they wish any misery on their subjects, but in a sense they were lucky as to the timing. The natural contrast in the boy’s lives is invaluable from a dramatic perspective. They get the viewer invested even more in the character’s lives, and also provide a convenient way for the filmmakers to explore their themes without interrupting the overall flow of the film.

Hoop Dreams, despite its 3-hour running time and deep themes, is a flat-out exciting movie to watch. The movie moves much faster than the running time would suggest, partly due to the natural competitive tension of sporting events, but mostly due to the fact that it is so unpredictable. Those of us with a taste for Hollywood sports movies usually can predict the ending after the first 5 minutes of the film, but we watch anyway to see how it plays out. If we see a kid shooting two free throws, we’re pretty certain he’s going to make them. The verite of Hoop Dreams throws that predictability out the window, adding an extra element to an already arousing sports drama.

Hoop Dreams was far ahead of its time as a documentary. Combining cinema verite with traditional, talking-head style documentaries wasn’t common in the early 90s. Neither was the practice of capturing an important scene as it happens. In most documentaries at that time, pivotal scenes were presented usually in the form of an interview with someone recalling the event from memory. The directorial and editorial style of Steve James was immeasurably influential on documentaries, plus it had a lasting influence on television. Your favorite reality TV show has roots with Hoop Dreams.

What makes the picture truly wonderful isn’t the technical achievement in editing and the creative filmmaking, nor is it entirely just the fascinating characters and how they pursued their dreams. We’ve seen time and again how a film can have strong technical elements and screenplays, but fail to reach us on an emotional level. Hoop Dreams was so memorable because of the filmmaker’s love towards the Agee and Gates families. They invested themselves into the characters, crossing the line between subject and friend, and that affection shows in how they relate Arthur and William’s stories. Even today, they remain friends and talk on occasion. Anyone who has watched Hoop Dreams can understand why.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=7086&reviewer=403
originally posted: 06/07/05 12:02:32
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User Comments

4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
2/19/15 Chris Jarmick Once groundbreaking utterly engrossing doc. 4.5 4 stars
2/03/11 Ted This is one of the best reviews I've read on the film. 5 stars
5/23/10 AJ Muller Fantastic film. Utterly captivating. "Overpraised"? Get over yourself. 5 stars
1/26/09 Shaun Wallner Wonderful story. 5 stars
10/13/05 K. Sear Very overrated. Mildly engaging for brief periods but overall is just tedious. 3 stars
7/11/05 Brian Feiler One of the finest documentaries ever made. 5 stars
10/19/04 maria montero exelent 5 stars
8/19/04 Nietzcshe Pettway I LOVED IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/18/03 malcolm at the end, i really felt like i grew up with those guys 5 stars
3/02/03 Jack Sommersby Overpraised documentary overstates the obvious. Good pacing, tough. 2 stars
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  14-Oct-1994 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-May-2005


  05-Sep-1996 (M)

Directed by
  Steve James

Written by
  Steve James
  Frederick Marx

  William Gates
  Arthur Agee

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