Director: Steve James
Writer: Steve James
Producer: Steve James, Peter Gilbert & Frederick Marx
Cinematographer: Peter Gilbert
by Jon Cvack
I recall starting this film long ago, failing to finish it for reasons unknown, getting about halfway through, until getting wrapped up in a production, with Netflix then pulling it off the stream shortly after. At nearly three hours long, documenting the near hopelessness of Chicago’s south side (except for the youth's ) it’s not a film you exactly rush to see. Roger Ebert regarded it as the greatest film of 1994, and one of the greatest films of the 90s and yet in a day that ended in infamy, demanding a shift in the Academy’s rules, members were able to reject documentaries by flashing a light across the screen while viewing, indicating a pass. Hoop Dreams didn’t even last fifteen minutes before it was turned off, losing its opportunity at the Oscar, and yet eventually gaining recognition as one of the finest documentaries ever made.
It’s easy to see why the film might have had problems - aside from the gritty digital 4:3 made-for-television feel (it was initially made-for-television, before the filmmakers realized the story needed a much larger canvas), the story takes place in America’s backyard, in which we witness that the stereotypes of lazy inner city fathers and mothers milking the system are utterly false (the film was released just before Clinton’s major welfare reform would occur a few years later; devastating these specific communities), and that these impoverished areas are actually filled with those who work precarious minimum wage jobs, constantly making cut backs, with little to no alternative opportunities. Faced with such an environment, pretty much all these kids have is their own athletic abilities, and the hopes that they’re the top 1% of 1% who will eventually make it to the pros. What’s most heartbreaking is seeing that each of these players genuinely believes that they’ll succeed. And what else could they do when faced with so few other options - taught in disastrous, near third world school conditions (I interned at a non-profit that assisted these schools and can testify to the conditions), surrounded by crime and unemployment and drugs, with the easier option to join a gang or hustle drugs just around the corner, available at any time.
The film follows two high school players - William Gates and Arthur Agee - both promising young players, with exciting prospects ahead of them. Both are offered scholarships to the prestigious St. Joseph’s academy - a Catholic preparatory academy with a stellar basketball program. However, with both hardly able to keep their grades up, their futures look bleak. For Gates, after numerous attempts, his inability to reach the 18 point minimum ACT required for college sends warning signals to the young player, who’s in the process of receiving hundreds of potential offers from colleges around the country. However, a crippling knee injury could derail his plans, as even after numerous surgeries he’s still left limping.
On the other hand, Arthur Agee is quickly cut from the team when he begins to underperform against expectations, then getting kicked out of the school when the family falls a couple thousand dollars behind tuition payments. In one of the film’s most infuriating scenes, we hear as Agee’s father says that if his son had met the school’s performance expectations then they would have indubitably found a way to make the arrangement work. Instead, Agee is relegated to the local public school John Marshall Metropolitan, where Agee begins to shine, though like Gates, is also facing a scholastic problem, refusing to take school at all seriously, facing summer programs, and an inability to get into any college.
In fairness, it does make you furious that while Agee and Gates fully dedicate themselves to the sport, they come as close as possible to throwing it all away because they refuse to give any effort to school. I found my blood boiling in some scenes, as you see how the devastating criticism the students face when attempting to take their education seriously. There’s a type of pride in not giving a shit about academics, as though it makes them cool or respectable, and worse, it actually does make them cool and respected. To immerse yourself and pour all one’s passions into basketball is noble; to care about school and buckle down and study, even if means jeopardizing their NBA futures, is considered silly and scornful. It’s easy to understand the reasoning - very few of the students will ever escape their neighborhoods. They too will fall prey to the few jobs offered, most of which are underpaid and insecure, preventing them from ever saving up for their own house, business, or higher education. And so what appears to be a matter of “coolness” is actually a problem of envy in that those who challenge themselves stand the best chance for escape, and it’s better to castigate ambitious individuals than support them, knowing that their lives stand to soar far beyond this place. And thus we see the confinement many of these individuals face.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Siskel and Ebert championing the film, helping to save it from obscurity; both place it above even Pulp Fiction
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