Game Changer

The Enduring Legacy of Hoop Dreams

Arthur Agee carried off the court by his teammates / Courtesy Kartemquin Films

He’s got game
When Arthur Agee steps onto the blacktop in the blistering Chicago heat, he’s got a swagger, a preternatural confidence, that sets him above his peers. But when his father, Bo Agee, steps onto the court, he’s a walking time bomb—nervous, strung-out, barely conscious of the thunderous dunks his 15-year-old son is pounding through the hoop. As filmed by director Steve James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert, this brief encounter on a city playground is a panoramic snapshot of urban life: you can’t separate the father from the son, or the soaring spectacle of Arthur’s dunks from the drug dealers across the way, eagerly awaiting Bo’s next purchase. As Arthur flies toward the rim, you get the sense that entire lives are hanging in the balance.

It’s been 20 years since Hoop Dreams reached North American movie theatres and scenes like this have lost none of their immersive power. The film remains a definitive study of the intersection of sports, race and class, and an indelible portrait of life in inner-city America. There was little controversy among American critics when Hoop Dreams was named the greatest documentary of all time in a 2007 poll by the International Documentary Association.

But Hoop Dreams is an unlikely success story, a film that, like its teenaged subjects, had to fight against the odds. In the risk-averse exhibition landscape of the mid-1990s, it seemed fair to ask whether audiences would even watch a three-hour documentary about aspiring basketball players in an African-American ghetto. Two decades later, Hoop Dreams still raises fascinating questions about the power and potential of socially-engaged storytelling: can a film comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable and still entertain a mainstream audience?

When Hoop Dreams hit theatres in the fall of 1994, the answer was a resounding yes. It grossed a robust eight million dollars at the box office, demonstrating the economic potential of documentary filmmaking to distributors and exhibitors across the continent. The film cast an equally long shadow in the cultural domain. Hoop Dreams was named one of the top ten films of the year by over 100 critics and was ranked the No. 1 film of 1994 by both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the two men most responsible for bringing the rating and debating of films into the North American mainstream. Hoop Dreams was a film that took the temperature of American culture in the 1990s, while also, in its own way, redefining it.

The movie’s success has affected filmmakers around the world. Hoop Dreams was one of the first feature-length films shot entirely on video, establishing a new, cost-effective blueprint for the production of non-fiction cinema. When the film failed to receive an Oscar nod for Best Documentary, it triggered the eventual creation of the Academy’s special Documentary Branch. Though still controversial, this new system has led to long-overdue recognition for filmmakers like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.

And Hoop Dreams continues to find new audiences. Over the past two decades, the film has screened in German high schools, on Ghanaian television and in Chinese film festivals. It has played on every continent except Antarctica. Arthur and the film’s other protagonist, William Gates, are the cinematic tribunes for athletic strivers across the globe: the African children who flood the soccer academies of Europe; the Chinese kids who wager life and limb on an Olympic medal; the Canadian youngsters who stake their future on a minor-league hockey contract. Hoop Dreams also resonates among viewers who would normally recoil at the sight of a bouncing basketball. As a British wag writes on the film’s IMDb message board: “Basketball may be a boring sport, but this [film] is excellent.”

The film’s broad appeal can be attributed to its clear-eyed portrait of human frailty; its young subjects are just a twisted ankle or dislocated shoulder away from seeing all their aspirations fade. As they learn to confront the limits of their bodies, and to find strength in their families and communities, William and Arthur speak to anyone who has ever struggled under the Darwinian conditions of globalization—one poorly timed illness or unexpected pink slip from seeing their own life prospects evaporate.

Arthur Agee at Nike Camp in Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James, 1994) / Courtesy Kartemquin Films

Hoop Dreams is a real-life coming-of-age story
As Arthur and William transition from middle school to high school, and high school to college, James captures both their emotional maturation and the exhilarating spectacle of their athletic development. In an early scene, William’s high school coach reminds his players of the unique opportunities that are granted to American athletes. “This is America,” he says. “You can make something of your life.” Despite Coach Pingatore’s brusque demeanour, you may find yourself nodding in agreement. To watch one of William’s rim-rattling dunks, or Arthur’s explosive stutter-steps, is to confront physical gifts of seemingly limitless potential.

But these exceptional talents bring enormous burdens: the fear of failure, the erosion of the body and the strident demands of coaches and recruiters. As William and Arthur dribble through this athletic meat-grinder, their pursuit of an NBA career becomes more than just a personal ambition; it’s also a vessel for the unrealised hopes and aspirations of their underprivileged friends and family members. Near the mid-point of the film, William offers a stark description of the social pressures he faces off the court: “They ask me: Will I forget about them when I make it? I ask them: Will they forget about me if I don’t?” Basketball may be a way for William and Arthur to “make something” of their lives, but we also get the sense that it’s the only way they’ve got.

Hoop Dreams is epic in scope but it never sacrifices the spontaneity and immediacy of these one-on-one scenes with the boys. James and producer/editor Frederick Marx make extensive use of interviews during the film’s first act but gradually transition to more prolonged and observational scenes in its middle and concluding chapters. This approach reflects the increasingly intimate bond between the filmmakers and their young subjects over the film’s five-year shoot. Although his work conforms to the general practices of cinema-verité, James has always been more focused on building relationships with the people in his films than achieving some mythical state of pure observation. As he explained in a 2011 Q&A at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto: “I want to get to a place where I can capture people’s lives in an honest way, through demystifying the whole process, through having them be comfortable with the camera […] instead of trying to disappear.”

From left: Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, the filmmakers of Hoop Dreams. / Courtesy Kartemquin Films

Over the past 20 years, Steve James has continued to apply this philosophy to stories that address his country’s racial and socio-economic disparities. In No Crossover (2010), the standout doc in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, James investigates a juvenile court case involving NBA star Allen Iverson. As in Hoop Dreams, he explores the ways in which American sports institutions often mask—and sometimes exploit—the country’s abiding racial divisions. In The Interrupters (2011), James offers a striking portrait of the murder epidemic in Chicago’s poorest communities. As the film traces the scars left by chronic violence and post-traumatic stress, it also underscores the continued decay of William and Arthur’s neighbourhoods since the 1990s. (Both William’s brother, Curtis, and the unforgettable Bo Agee have lost their lives to gun violence in the years since Hoop Dreams was released.) Even with a hoophead from Chicago in the White House, Hoop Dreams still speaks to America’s enduring socio-economic challenges.

The film was also quite prescient about the commercialization of youth sports. Basketball prospects are now rated and recruited in elementary school. If James and his team were starting out again today, they’d have to follow their hoops-obsessed subjects from an even earlier age and observe their interactions with an even more sordid roster of 21st-century Fagins.

They might also find it interesting to survey the global proliferation of these trends. A number of talented Canadians are beginning to realize their NBA dreams—last year’s No. 1 draft pick was a kid from Brampton, Ont.—but many players from Canada’s poorest communities now face the same pressures that William and Arthur encountered in Hoop Dreams. In a recent exposé on Ro Russell, the Toronto-area coach most responsible for the Americanization of Canadian hoops, CBC’s The Fifth Estate revealed that Russell had been funneling cheques for his players’ educations into a prep school he owned in the United States. The school’s academic standards were so poor that many of its student-athletes were deemed ineligible for collegiate scholarships.

With more and more children across the world pursuing their own hoop dreams, the film’s portrait of athletic exploitation and economic marginalization remains as affecting and topical as ever. Hoop Dreams was recently named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, signifying its importance to the history of American film, but this is a movie whose reach and relevance is increasingly global in scope. If the past 20 years have been any indication, Hoop Dreams will continue to transcend its humble, Midwestern origins—comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, and entertaining audiences all over the world.

Will Di Novi is a writer and film programmer based in Toronto. He has written for such publications as The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Salon and The New Republic.

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