Hoop Dreams (1994) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, some drug content, and some sexual references
Running Time: 170 min.
Cast: Arthur Agee, William Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur "Bo" Agee, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Gene Pingatore, Isiah Thomas, Spike Lee
Director: Steve James
Screenplay: Steve James, Frederick Marx
By today's standards, one might say that Hoop Dreams smacks of a reality show surrounding sports, although it doesn't carry any of the negative connotations that the "reality show" name implies. It merely follows the high school careers of two inner city young men who have a raw talent for basketball, as well as big dreams of someday making the NBA as pro players. However, the road to stardom isn't just about physical abilities and on-the-court talent. To be taken seriously, the young men must keep their grades up if they wish to pursue a collegiate degree, and they also need to learn the importance of teamwork. Street ball gives you the instincts, but does little in terms of the fundamentals of how to build for a championship team.
Hoop Dreams is a refreshing documentary that explores the ins and outs of the high school and college recruitment process, with all of the warts that go along with them. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, where inner city children with a talent for the game are able to go to a top-notch school, while the school benefits from more revenue, prestige, and grants for keeping their academic and athletic programs competitive. As represented in the film, the entire process is greased by self-serving actions, and doesn't always seem to care about the personal, human aspects of the players, which are sometimes at odds with the program.
The film also deals with the private lives of the two young men, including their relationships with their families, friends, and coaches, and how all of these factors lead to the constant feeling of pressure from all sides. Going to a private school often requires monetary compensation on the part of the family, and for those living from paycheck to paycheck (or on welfare), the sacrifices they make are enormous. Also, the youths have to deal with the negative external factors of the environment, with crime, drugs, gangs, and parents who aren't always there to protect and guide them, particularly when they are forced to go to school or work themselves to try to fund their education.
Hoop Dreams is a very long documentary, clocking it at just less than three hours in length, which can appear daunting for those who might otherwise be interested in the subject matter. Although some trimming could have been done, it probably would have come at great expense to the overall impact, and I personally would not have changed a thing. We care for the young men, as well as their families, and the impact of seeing all of the different interests riding on their backs makes for stimulating, thought-provoking viewing.
Credit director Steve James (Prefontaine, Stevie) for sticking with the documentary to its completion, which took several years to make, and in his ability to become a part of the lives of the young men without ever seeming intrusive. All of the participants to a fine job in ignoring that the camera is constantly in their face, watching their every move, which pays off during some very emotional scenes that make us feel like we're riding the wave of success and failure right along with them.
The film ends without us ever knowing whether or not the two young men ever make the pros (for those who are curious, you can read the Washington Post article here). Recommended for everyone, even if you don't like basketball, but especially for young men and women who have hoop dreams (or any other sports aspirations) of their own.
Followed by a 30-minute PBS special, "Hoop Dreams Reunion", which aired in 1995.
©2005 Vince Leo