The 1994 Documentary, Hoop Dreams, directed by Steve James, is a masterful display of human drama. The story-line is so captivating and theatrical that it seems crafted from fiction. The Documentary boasts cinematic techniques and private investigating that rivals most film of this time period. The film follows the high school careers of two boys from the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. The aggressive authenticity of cinema verite does not only peek through in character emotion, but film’s beginning came together naturally. James tells Robert Ebert in 2009, “A talent scout for suburban high schools led us to Arthur. Through Arthur we happen to met William. We kept right on filming from that. We never did get much more, but we kept on filming (Ebert, 1).” Through commendable efforts in precise cinematography, narrative, and continuity editing- the stories of Arthur Agee and William Gates widened the eyes of America. In all my years of studying cinema I have yet to watch a movie, documentary or not, that has touched me this deeply.
The superiority of Hoop Dreams goes well beyond the scope of a Film student. Apart from his assessment, Hoop Dreams is decorated with over twelve awards. To name a few; The Sundance Film Festival Audience Aware for Best Documentary in 1994, 1994 Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Documentary, 1994 Chicago Film Critics Award: Best Picture, 1995 Academy Award Nomination: Best Editing and In 2007, the International Documentary Association selected Hoop Dreams as the all-time greatest documentary (IMDb).
The fates of Arthur and William began in the hands of Earl Smith, a talent scout for several high schools that recruits impressionable grammar school kids. College-style recruitment at the disturbingly young age of twelve. He recruited Both Arthur Agee and William Gates to play basketball for St. Joseph’s High School. The opening sequences have the boys at same starting point and their divergence from each other climaxes in the narrative as Agee is forced to drop out of St. Joseph’s. Polarization starts to pull at the audience empathy as Gates’s education is fully payed for, but injures to his knee junior year hinder his prophesy of NBA stardom. Both protagonists had humble beginnings but each had their time in the spotlight from basketball. Various themes in the film include poverty and the class system, race, drugs, family, fatherhood, the American dream, sports, individualism, and hope in contrast with struggle. Through a remarkable intertwining of two young men, the superiority of Hoop Dreams is unquestionable.
A well-done documentary of social representation can be more powerful than even it’s creators imagined. James consciously balanced aesthetics with his ethical responsibilities as an artist. Ethically speaking, Hoop Dreams gave well-built attention to timely issues that went generally untouched during the early 90’s. Steve James made the reality of families living in projects visible to classes living outside of its poverty. James was smart and empathetic in using Cabrini-Green house as the documentary space because it bears a recognizable familiarity to the “ghetto” stereotype people imagine. Gaven Lamert, screenwriter and notable author, describes the irreversible power that Hoop Dreams can have in society;
“In the broadest sense, they are films of protest; they are not conceived in sweeping terms… but the camera-eye they turn on society… disenchanted, and occasionally ferocious and bitter…. IF compassion is explicit in Lorenza /Mazeti’s film (Together), implicit in Lindsay Anderson’s (O Dreamland), it is the most rigorous, difficult and austere kind of compassion: not for the moment or the particular situation, but a kind of permanent temperamental heartache for the world and the people apparently lost in it. No doubt of it, this is the world in which we live.” (Ellis, 200)
One interview in the film that stuck out to me as intentionally dramatic was an interview with one of the films heroic characters, Arthur’s mother. In contrast with interviews that James conducts as a source or witness, in which he sets the mise-en-scene, James tends to keep the camera true-to-life with the mother (Bellour, 50). James maintains a shaky camera technique to solidify his position as “the eye looking into their world.” During panning or other establishing shots, narrated sequences, and interviews with characters, a tripod is used to separate those moments from the story. Although not entirely non-diegetic, the interviews are spaces in the film shot outside of the story. The audience is given confirmation of how William and Arthur must be feeling during this time, allowing character development. Along with the ethical concerns of not tampering with reality, aesthetic efforts during the interviews was necessary to separate them from reality (Ellis, 222)
Arthur’s mother, Sheila Agee, was a symbolic representation re-occurring themes; strength within struggle (IMDb). Her character acts as more then a ‘rock’ for her family, but the struggle of her reality gave character authenticity, adding to film credibility. Institutions of Education and Financial policies act as the antagonists. The films hero, suitably so because our society draws a parallel between hero and mother, is Sheila. Ryan intentionally displayed her character in abundance. She stood as the light in the protagonists darkness and made the film more entertaining, as well as broadcasting injustices in our system. ‘Do you all wonder sometimes how I am living?” Arthur’s mother asks turning directly to the camera, ”How my children survive, and how they’re living? A family of 4 lived on $268 a month in public aid. When Arthur turned 18, his $100 payment was cut off despite still being in high school. Their gas and electricity had been turned off in the winter and the family was using a camp lantern for light. Ryan’s use of a dark and saddening track added depth and despair to a worsening situation for Arthur. Meanwhile, the darkness of Arthur’s life blackened in juxtaposition with William’s, whose basketball career was blossoming (Ebert, 2).
Not only did James make a societal statement, but both protagonists feel that the documentary played a positive role in their own lives. A New History of Documentary Film speaks of ethics not only in regard to the masses, but the means must justify the ends in regards to its star actors. What did a popular and confrontation film like this do to William and Arthur? “Ethically, the central questions involve the honesty and responsibility of the filmmakers toward their subject persons”(Ellis, 222). William Gates was interviewed about the film twenty years later to confess that the film gives him “bragging rights around the house” with his four children. And, perhaps most importantly, Gates said that the documentary lets him “always have the voice of his brother,” his basketball encouragement throughout the film, and was killed in 2001 (Saldana, 3). Arthur got into Arkansas State after shooting ended and later formed a foundation to help inner city kids get into college.
Numerous critics feel this film lacks in cinematic flair and visual style. The editing is very simplistic, but for good reason, reason I feel to be intentional. A documentary is suppose to be void of fiction and transitions. Modern graphics would have added clutter that made it look biased- as well as fake. Editing is extremely important in documentaries. Hoop Dreams included just enough of the significant, and mundane moments that it established credibility towards its authenticity as “real-life.” The boring and the juicy was selected purposefully, the lack-luster scenes I found were poetic and eloquent. Always intigrated to convey emotions of despair, rather then triumph. Considering the filming lasted for over six years, editing must have been a torturously long process. The only aid that James had in editing were the textual and narrative guides to factually guide the story along.
Ryan’s observational use of narration allowed the audience to judge with minimal interventions. There was not an intrusive voice-over, and was only utilized as a tool to inform the audience. The narrations were nearly non-existent in their monotone vocals and somber music being played in the background (Bellour, 55). The narrator is never attempting to openly persuade. The narrative chronicles the boys happenings and title pages separate the film into four parts, appropriately as “Freshmen, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior year.” In 1994, visual effects did not achieve much in todays comparisons and the title page of “Hoop Dreams” is about as aesthetically advanced as graphics reached. However, it was not a lack of technology that spurred the film’s simplicity. Conservative text reading a name, or a title page with black background chronicled their lives. James’s intent was to inform in the most direct way possible by keeping the editing very simple. After all, this film did win an Academy award nominee for best editing in 1994 (IMDb).
It is hard to imagine this film being successful under any other mode then Observational. Bill Nichols describes how I felt in regard to the context of Hoop Dreams “Filmmakers who worked in this sub-genre often saw the poetic mode as too abstract and the expository mode as too didactic” (Nichols, 20). Life Dramatics and significant moments in the narrative are carefully selected and strung together. Both men’s lives were in juxtaposition to each other; their schooling, home-life and most importantly, their careers in basketball were being compared to one-another.
James revealed the relentless way in which coaches and schools recruit and use kids as nothing more then social cliches. William’s coach, Pingatore, treats him like a son and essentially makes him feel immensely valued and loved, shadowing the true reason why Pingatore is interested in Williams at all; to win games. Coach Pingatore’s true indifference towards William is expressed in the end, ”One goes out the door, and another one comes in the door. That’s what it’s all about.” The wickedness of fame becomes more apparent as the plot thickens, disheartening viewers at the sight of of what a real college athlete goes through. Both boys had the same grades, went to the same school. Yet, because William performed better, his academic tuition and physical therapy were all payed for. Arthur did not perform as well and because his parents missed a payment, he was dropped from St. Joseph’s immediately and lost an entire semesters worth of credit. Chucked back into the hole they yanked him out of, into a family with a drug-addicted father, portrays the school pragmatic and cold. How one basket, or one score on an exam makes all the difference to a family living in these conditions, but then Hoop Dreams reflects a reality in this country, and not just at St. Joseph’s. A family without money needs to be born into this talent or suffer under the inadequacy of their fortunes.
Williams older brother stands as the negative or what William will become if he should “fail”, a word in repetition throughout the film. Williams older brother almost made it to the NBA and now he has nothing, confessing in anguish, “Im use to everybody in the neighborhood loving me and knowing how good i could play… but now, just a regular old guy on the street now.” His brother goes on to say that if william should fail, “he might not have a friend left in the world.” The loneliness that accompanies fame can be a scary and overwhelming lesson for such a young person to learn. A poetic line from William himself, “People always asking me if Im gonna remember them if i make it, and I always tell them, Will you remember me if i don’t?”
The true meaning of the film goes way beyond the plot of making it to the NBA. The film’s legacy has little to do with basketball. The game itself stands as a metaphorical representation of “making it,” not to the NBA, but making it out a poor situation and making it through to the gates of happiness, purpose and peace. Gates, now a minister, recalls back to the film in talking about that period in his life when watched 20 of his friends die in gang-related deaths. In the film alone gates recalls, “ten of them are no longer with us” (Ebert, 3). The human tragedies in this story far outweigh the actual sports aspects of the film, in the end having no significant. Kids born into ‘ghettos’ face hurdles that still exist across the country today and in no lesser form of corruption.
Hoop Dreams had such personal resonance to my life that some parts of the film were even difficult to swallow. It connected to my personal experiences with College basketball and the internal battles that accompany that pressure. I played college basketball for two years before quitting, finding Arthur’s experience to be comparable to what I went through. This film shows the extent of importance that players have to want it for themselves. No one can do it for you.
Basketball stopped being a game once the dreams of people I care about ended up on my shoulders, exactly as Williams dialogue confessed. You have to want it so bad that you sacrifice everyone and everything else. William gave up wanting that dream and wanted something else. There is no failure in that choice, there is no shame. Andrew’s mother says straight to the camera, “You are somebody no matter where you go. Its what you have in your heart that makes you go somewhere.”
It takes years to re-identify with yourself absent a sport as demanding as basketball in this country. An unexplainable and unhealthy attachment grows between you and holding excellence in something, even a game. I respected the game too much to continue playing it in a condition of resentment and those themes of happiness and personal choice shined through the game. This film shows the love that these boys had for a game that gave them light amidst their unforgiving surroundings. William and Arthur lived through political, financial and outside stresses which decay that beauty until the game no longer exists, but becomes a “job” as William quoted.
The fact that both protagonists were friends, that they loved each other, immediately threw an ironic aspect into the narrative. Both characters were shot in contrast, in direct competition with each other. James used parallel editing styles in games were both characters had chances to win the game. Parallel editing showed William excelling in school, and Arthur struggled to the point of failing. They were in competition on screen, and yet, they were always friends- a fact the direction does not let us know until the climax. The resolution of Hoop Dreams concentrated on the happiness in family and friendship. All that was corrupted by the system faded away and the dream came back into focus. In the films concluding moments, Arthur grants clarity to the films message, “We always dreamed, like me and WIlliam, taking them down to state together. Maybe we coulda went down to state and maybe we couldn’t of, but we did when i was at St. i was at marshall.” Their hoop dreams did come true.
Bellour, Raymond, and Constance Penley. The Analysis of Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. Print.
Ebert, Roger. “Roger Ebert’s Journal.” Roger Ebert’s Journal. Chicago Sun-Times, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. .
Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy A. McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. New York: Continuum, 2005. Print.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.
Saldana, Matt. “Indy Week.” Indy Week. N.p., 6 Apr. 2009. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.