Hoop Dreams (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The wonderful thing about dreams, like hope, is that everyone can nurture their own, and there's no cost. It's taking the next step -- transforming those wispy ideals and half-realized wishes into reality -- that demands a price, and sometimes a high one at that. Hoop Dreams, the tale of two high school basketball players, is less a story about the sport than it is a chronicle of life in the inner city and of following Aldous Huxley's advice that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp."

Traditionally, documentarians know the endings of their films before they start shooting. This is not always the case, however; Hoop Dreams is an excellent counterexample. Like other features filmed as the events take place (such as Michael Apted's excellent Seven Up series and 1992's Brother's Keeper), this picture has a legitimate dramatic structure that is equally as compelling as a scripted slice of fiction.

Hoop Dreams follows two Chicago youths, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from their Freshman year of high school to their first year of college. In addition to documenting the inevitable on-court maturation process, the movie illustrates the difficulties of balancing sports with scholastic and family pressures. Neither William nor Arthur are advanced academically, and both suffer through a variety of away-from-school crises.

At the start of Hoop Dreams, when William and Arthur are 14, each appears to be a solid prospect for recruiting by "white" suburban basketball powerhouse St. Joseph High School and its legendary coach, Gene Pingatore. Arthur has the quickest step one talent scout has seen in five years, and William looks like the "next Isiah Thomas." One point explored by this film is that no matter how "can't miss" a prospect is, and regardless of their level of talent and enthusiasm, most of them, in fact, fail. Being the star of a high school team does not guarantee a trip to the NBA, and realizing this represents a rude awakening for William and Arthur.

While William quickly becomes Coach Pingatore's "go to guy" on the varsity squad, Arthur's slow development as a player allows him to be dropped from the Freshman team. When his parents can no longer afford St. Joseph's tuition, Arthur is cut loose and sent back to public school. His home life is further disrupted by financial struggles and the departure of his father. William, on the other hand, suffers a series of knee injuries that erode his confidence, and the unexpected arrival of a baby daughter throws his personal life into further turmoil. (Oddly, the film makers don't inform us that William has a girlfriend until Alicia is born.)

The rich texture of Hoop Dreams' drama is its greatest asset. This is a film that goes beyond the verisimilitude of something to come from the pen of Spike Lee or John Singleton, into the realm of real life. The shattered illusions of William and Arthur are all the more poignant because these are not the dividends of a screenwriter's fertile imagination. And the drug deals depicted are chilling for exactly the same reason.

Hoop Dreams is not without flaws, some of which -- like the irregular transitions and erratic pacing -- are understandable results of the manner in which the film was put together. Film makers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert amassed 250 hours of interviews, clips, and game footage, then edited it all down to one-hundred seventy-one minutes. Arguably, more could have been cut without undermining the story or its themes. There are times when Hoop Dreams threatens to drag.

Most movies about sports lack anything but the most rudimentary tension. After all, in pictures like Hoosiers and The Natural, we know which team is going to win -- regardless of how unlikely the manner of the victory is. Not so for Hoop Dreams, which presents a number of condensed real games where the outcome is as much in question as in any genuine sporting event. Even viewers without an appreciation of basketball will find that they have a rooting interest.

Ultimately, however, Hoop Dreams is about life and its challenges, both on and off the basketball court, and that's the reason you don't have to be a sports fan for this film to work. If any single line sums up the lessons learned by the two protagonists, it comes late in the movie, and is spoken by William in his Marquette University dorm room: "People always say to me, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget me.' Well, if I don't get to the NBA, you don't forget about me."

Hoop Dreams (United States, 1994)

Director: Steve James
Cast: William Gates, Arthur Agee, Sheila Agee, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Earl Smith, and Gene Pingatore
Screenplay: Steve James
Cinematography: Peter Gilbert
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 2:51
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1