One of the most widely discussed and well-received documentaries of the decade, HOOP DREAMS is a powerful and moving film that intimately chronicles the lives of two Chicago teenagers as they struggle with the pressures of potential basketball stardom. For five years, independent
filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert recorded both the private moments and public experiences of Arthur Agee and William Gates. The result is both a sympathetic portrait of two human beings and a stunning expose of the system that exploits "student-athletes."
The film begins in 1986, with a talent scout discovering Arthur and William as 14-year-old stars of the playground. Lured by the "hoop dreams" of college and NBA careers, both accept athletic scholarships to St. Joseph High School--introducing the film's central conflict, as young black men
shuttle back and forth between their economically marginalized families in the city and a wealthy, predominantly white prep school in the suburbs. The film follows the successes and failures of four seasons of high school hoops and four years of personal growth, frustration, and tragedy.
Although HOOP DREAMS skillfully edits together exciting basketball highlights, the Agee and Gates families are its true subjects. Presumably because the cameras became such a fixture in these homes over time, they capture, in the best cinema verite tradition, compelling and revelatory moments of
family dynamics. Despite the harshness of their lives, members of both families are shown to be supportive, hard-working, and (perhaps unreasonably) optimistic. Their image offers a refreshingly complicated and humane look at underclass life that puts the lie to media stereotypes of the welfare
mother and the gang banger. On the other hand, the film admirably refuses to elide aspects of its subjects' lives that conflict with the old liberal myth of long-suffering, impossibly noble poor blacks.
The triumph of HOOP DREAMS is that it celebrates the game of basketball while critiquing its corporate and social underpinnings. Like Arthur and William and the culture they come from, the Chicago-based filmmakers love basketball too much not to get caught up in the excitement of the boys' final
state tournament. And to some extent the film concludes with a different message than than that of its first two hours. However briefly, Arthur Agee and William Gates do get out of the ghetto. Their path is inglorious, their success tenuous, but this pair of likable, reluctant heroes are shown as
completing a bittersweet journey.
While HOOP DREAMS was named as one of the year's best movies by virtually every prominent critic in the US, it failed to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Documentary Feature, giving rise to widespread criticism of the arcane and complicated process by which the Academy reviews
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