Friday, February 23, 2024

HOOP DREAMS: Looking Back After 30 Years

by Erika Bromley
I reflect on my favorite documentary and make Patrick uncomfortable.

I always knew I would write about Hoop Dreams if we ever chose 1994 as the year for F This Movie Fest. Anyone who has been ‘around’ the site over the years knows I am a superfan and have attended multiple screenings over the years. I won’t shut up about the layers to this film and how I think the world is a better place because of it. Roger Ebert’s famous empathy quote applies to this film in every single way. I have had the honor of meeting the filmmakers and Arthur Agee Jr. (more than once!!) and am only lovingly stalking William Gates in the hopes of getting the chance to thank him in person for sharing his life along with Arthur in what is truly one of the best documentary films ever. Simply, Hoop Dreams is a film that could be studied in any type of course – economics, government, history, psychology, sports marketing, sociology, geography, political science… there are layers to the stories and mosaic of the families’ lives that the filmmakers never could have imagined or even planned for. But in the end, they knew how to edit all of the years of footage to tell a story that continues to inspire, motivate, and teach anyone who has the privilege to immerse themselves in the film. It’s heart-wrenching and moving and reminds us all that despite any curveball (wrong sport, darn it!) life throws at us, there is something more to be done. Something to learn. Something to not give up on no matter what.

I couldn’t predict life and time and schedules and work and kids getting sick and all of that, of course. Despite my dream of unlimited free time to compose and write my thoughts not coming true, I have a few resources I often turn to just as reminders of not only how great Hoop Dreams is, but how wonderful so much of the writing and discussion around it has always been. Since the very first time Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked about the film on At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert back in 1994 to reflection pieces written just in the past few years or interviews with the filmmakers and cast at various screenings around the country (just last week, Agee, Gates, Steve James, and Peter Gilbert attended a special screening at the Slam Film Festival in Indianapolis; I wish I could have attended!), myriad thoughtful essays, reviews, interviews, etc. exist about Hoop Dreams (and luckily for me, always show up in my algorithm). Each new piece I read/watch/listen to (Agee and Gates even have their own podcast) reminds me of why the film is so special and makes me want to experience it again. Since I didn’t have time to truly write my own essay this week, I wanted to share one of my favorites from long ago (2005!). You might also know this film writer. I think he’s pretty great.

From Patrick Bromley’s 2005 review of Hoop Dreams (Criterion Collection DVD release in 2005) for the incredible site, DVD Verdict (RIP):
Hoop Dreams: Criterion Collection, Reviewed by Patrick Bromley on July 25th, 2005

"People always say to me, 'When you make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' Well, I should have said back, 'If I don't make it to the NBA, don't you forget about me.'" – William Gates

Steve James's 1994 documentary, hailed by film critic Roger Ebert as "the best film of the 1990s," comes to DVD for the first (and presumably last) time. Because it's being released by the Criterion Collection, we know it's going to be done right. Hoop Dreams was planned as a thirty-minute documentary about the African American experience as it relates to the sport of basketball. As part of this documentary (which was meant to be sold to PBS), the filmmakers -- Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert -- intended to include a profile of a young Chicago boy who showed great promise at the sport. One boy became two: 14-year old William Gates and 14-year old Arthur Agee, who both demonstrated such skill at basketball that they were recruited by an upper-class suburban high school, St. Joseph's -- the alma mater of former All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Slowly, a new film began to come into focus as the boys' lives took new directions and new "twists" introduced themselves. Ultimately, Hoop Dreams follows the boys from their freshman year of high school through their freshman year of college, spanning nearly five years and chronicling all of their triumphs and defeats both on the court and off.
The summer movie season is more than halfway over now, and each week I seem to grow more and more restless. Blockbuster after blockbuster, film after film, I find myself starved for content. For drama. For the kind of human connection that, at their best, films can give us. I've found it in a handful of films -- a majority of them being documentaries like Rize and Mad Hot Ballroom (and yes, I do recognize that looking for substance in the summer movie season conjures up some needle/haystack imagery, but it seems more and more that "summer" is creeping its way across the entire calendar). Perhaps it's because documentaries are able to strip away the artifice (most of it, anyway) that we call "spectacle" and examine real people with real concerns. People who find real joy in doing what they love. People who struggle and who (hopefully) overcome. People whose ordinary lives are far more involving than anything concocted by millions of dollars in CGI effects and endless rewrites. People like you and me. It's in watching these films and opening ourselves up to the lives contained within them that we, in some small way, become better people.

That's Hoop Dreams, a movie I hadn't seen prior to watching it for the purposes of this review. Sure, I was aware of it through the writings and ravings of my hometown hero, Roger Ebert. And the wife has been a fan for years, too -- she shows it in her Film Studies course, and every so often will read a random item and update me on the lives of the two boys the movie depicts. Those kinds of articles didn't use to mean anything to me; seeing the film, I can now say that they will. The boys have become a part of me. Heck, the boys are me. This film isn't about basketball; it's about growing up with the singular passion to be a part of something that you love. For me, it was monster movies (which eventually gave way to movies in general, accompanied by the knowledge that I had to be involved with them in some way). I would gobble up books on Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and watch the old black-and-white frights on the local horror show, Son of Svengoolie, with the same wide-eyed gaze that Arthur Agee and William Gates watch the All-Star game.

And yet there's an obvious difference, too. My childhood passion required only spectatorship (the advancement of knowledge came from my own decision to pursue the movies further). It didn't demand hard work, or discipline, or practice. Basketball does, and we see it from the moment we meet Arthur and William. Yes, there is pressure on them from outside sources (William from his older brother, Curtis; Arthur from his father), but nothing compared to the pressure the boys put on themselves -- they're going to make it in the NBA, no matter what. There's a drive there that exceeds the simple dreams of adolescent boys. Basketball is more than a fantasy for William and Arthur; for better or worse, it begins to define them.
But, as I said, Hoop Dreams isn't about basketball. The sport provides the framework for director Steve James's larger story -- the love of something and the total devotion of one's life to its pursuit. Yet I find that even that description is limiting, as Hoop Dreams is about so much more. It's about race and class -- particularly the lower socio-economic class, African American inner-city experience in the 1990s. Now, 11 years later, you might not see this as groundbreaking; we have, after all, been inundated with such imagery through music, television, and film. And yet I've never seen it examined this thoughtfully, this sensitively, this directly. James doesn't attempt to sentimentalize his subjects, and it's in that way that the film gains its resonance -- it's a straightforward and honest look at the experience of these two families, and the way that basketball factors in (sometimes providing new opportunity, other times used as a tool of manipulation and crass opportunism -- listen closely to Spike Lee's comments during his cameo). It's a movie of triumphs both big and small, and of tragedies that are the same. The scene in which Arthur's father wanders off the court to buy drugs while both the camera crew and Arthur look on is just as heartbreaking, if not more, than anything I've seen in movies.

In trying to write this review, I've realized that it's difficult for me to talk about Hoop Dreams, the way it can be difficult to talk about anything that one has a strong emotional response to. I can admire its technical accomplishments and construction -- it is, after all, beautifully crafted and executed -- but my reactions are primarily emotional, and I'm left a bit lost for words. Hoop Dreams moved me in a way that few films do. I'm not sure I need to say much else.

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1 comment:

  1. Just added this to my watchlist, this and the new podcast has me very interested ! Cant wait to dig into it !