Hoop Dreams (1994)
Directed by: Steve James
Before tonight, I only knew “Hoop Dreams” as the documentary that was so good that it spurred the AMPAS to change the Oscar nomination process when it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. After watching the film, my biggest question isn’t why “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary. It’s why it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture.
The filmmakers, exhibiting a lot of guts and a massive leap of faith, follow two kids from Chicago’s projects over four years as they move through high school and, hopefully, toward a successful college and NBA basketball career. We first meet the two boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, when they’re 14 years old. Both of them are already being recruited to play basketball for the same high school - St. Joseph’s, alma mater of NBA then-superstar Isiah Thomas.
“Hoop Dreams” was filmed in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the Michael Jordan era, when athletes began to move beyond being personalities and started becoming their own cottage industries. It’s obvious that the only reason Gates and Agee are so highly valued is that they show the potential to be great basketball players - and make a lot of money for a lot of different people.
While Gates and Agee start on the same track, their paths soon diverge. Gates is a natural and immediately wins a starting spot on the St. Joseph’s varsity basketball team, one of the most renowned teams in the country. And with fame comes all the perks. St. Joseph’s solicits outside donations to make sure his family can afford the pricey private school tuition. And when Gates is injured, the school pays for top-of-the-line medical care and rehab. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Gates soon learns that the pressure to win doesn’t start in the NBA.
Agee, on the other hand, is a chronic underachiever, both on the court and off. When he doesn’t realize his potential immediately, St. Joseph’s expels him because his family can’t pay the tuition - and then literally holds his transcripts for ransom until his mother, who is raising children and grandchildren on welfare, can scrape together the back tuition that’s owed. Agee becomes the product of a failing public school, doing only what’s necessary to stay on the school’s unremarkable basketball team.
As the years pass, the boys’ lives intersect in interesting ways. Their fortunes rise and fall. But through it all, they both realize that basketball isn’t a game anymore. It’s a ticket to a better life, a way to alleviate the pressures of everyday existence. Pressures to win, pressures to realize family members’ unrealized potential, pressures to make a better life for themselves. The two boys, who grew up dreaming of getting to play in front of thousands of screaming fans, come to realize that their dream isn’t theirs anymore. Is it still worth fighting for?
It’s impossible not to feel sorry for William Gates and Arthur Agee. William becomes the star at St. Joseph’s, but it comes at a price - the program is a machine, run by a coach who obviously has no interest in the lives or wellbeing of his players. Success is measured in wins and losses - what else matters? Agee struggles with the notion that he wasn’t good enough for St. Joseph’s and might not be good enough period. He walks through life in a daze, only rediscovering his passion when the pressure’s off and his team begins a miracle run in the playoffs.
But more than anything, this is a movie about institutional failure. These boys are failed by their schools. By a culture that brings inner-city black kids from the projects into upper-class society to win basketball games, but has no problem turning their backs on the societal problems they struggle with everyday. And by the athletic system, at the time still a burgeoning version of what we have today.
The makers of “Hoop Dreams” are the recipients of a cinematic miracle, filmmakers who happened to catch real life that is stranger, more profound and, yes, more heartbreaking than fiction. But the exhilaration of seeing William and Arthur’s life being captured on film is tempered by the sobering thought of all those young kids, then and now, who live undocumented, under the constant pressure of their expectations, reaching for dreams that they may never grasp.