‘Hoop Dreams’ Remains Groundbreaking Achievement
By Todd Hill
The world doesn’t just need documentary films, but all manner of documentary films.
These days, the genre has grown top-heavy with titles wedded to one social cause or another, generally of a liberal persuasion, which often state their case from a place of rage.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, as these docs may at least counter the multiple conservative voices that are out there. But getting bogged down in the culture wars is ultimately limiting. It’s a big, wide world out there. Documentary films are at their best when they strive to explore each and every corner of it.
“Hoop Dreams” (1994) came about when its eventual director was playing basketball at Southern Illinois University one day in 1985 and thought the culture of African-American street ball might be worth exploring in a short film, preferably back in his native Chicago. Steve James later visited some places, met with some people, which led to still more meetings with still more people over a long period of time.
Long story short, “Hoop Dreams” was eventually born, a documentary that followed two inner-city black boys as they pursued their goal of hitching a ride on basketball as their ticket out of the ghetto. Spoiler alert — it’s a dream that fails to materialize for either of the film’s stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee. They didn’t make it to the NBA, at any rate. But the fascinating back story behind “Hoop Dreams” is how this groundbreaking documentary film changed their lives nevertheless.
Watching the movie today, “Hoop Dreams” doesn’t necessarily impress at, say, 20 minutes in. Today, cinema verite is old hat, and reality programming is yesterday’s gimmick. But give the film the three hours it requires and you’ll be hooked; its best moments may linger in your consciousness long after the final credits.
Long-form sports documentaries, which now fill the airwaves on multiple sports channels, are a thing today because “Hoop Dreams” exists. This is the film that started it all. But while this familiarity may rob the movie of, well, pretty much all its novelty today, “Hoop Dreams” still merits viewing because, quite simply, sports docs don’t get any better than this.
Director Steve James, along with his co-writer/producer Frederick Marx and co-producer Peter Gilbert (a friend who happened to own a video camera), wound up following Gates, Agee and their families and basketball coaches for a little over five years, from their freshmen years in high school and on into college, as the filmmakers’ money and time allowed.
It’s a narrative device that’s been used in Michael Apted’s “Up” series of films, which has followed the lives of 14 British residents every seven years since 1964, and fictionally in Richard Linklater’s 2014 movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over 11 years using the same actors. What makes “Hoop Dreams” singularly captivating isn’t just its method, but its exposition of how the American dream has been contorted to serve some of our most disadvantaged communities.
Both Gates and Agee are recruited by a scout to play high school basketball at St. Joseph, a private school in the Chicago area whose boys basketball team was coached by Gene Pingatore, the winningest such coach in Illinois history. Agee is booted from the program after his family can’t afford the school’s tuition, going on to play basketball at public Marshall High School, while Gates finishes his high school career at St. Joseph, courtesy of a rich white benefactor.
Although Gates has the physique of a born athlete, injuries and a seeming lack of confidence hold him back. Agee is a scrawny kid, but he’s a natural leader on the basketball court, and nearly takes Marshall to the state championship. After high school Gates goes to Marquette University on scholarship, while Agee spends two years at a junior college in Missouri before making it to Arkansas State.
But it’s the journey, not the destination, that renders “Hoop Dreams” so impactful, and the film makes it abundantly clear that the two young men are products of both their families and their environment, not just their association with sports.
Neither St. Joseph School nor Coach Pingatore come off particularly well. When he’s berating his players, most of them black, for being lazy, Pingatore refers to them as “you people.” And as he heads off to college, Gates informs his coach that he plans on majoring in communications “so when you come asking for a donation I’ll know how to tell you no.” After “Hoop Dreams” was released, Pingatore and his school sued the filmmakers for misrepresentation. It’s telling, however, that Gates’ son later played for Pingatore.
Midway through the film, Gates is seen participating in a basketball combine of sorts attended by scores of big-time college basketball coaches. It’s a veritable meat market, and Spike Lee shows up to warn the young athletes that the only reason they’re there is because they mean big money to these universities. It’s an accurate assessment, although one can’t help wondering why the event’s organizers invited Lee to speak.
Recurring characters in the movie are Gates’ older brother, Curtis, another athlete who proved to be uncoachable; Agee’s mother, Sheila, who complains to the camera about the profound humiliation of having to go on welfare, and most significantly, Agee’s father, Bo, a charismatic figure struggling with drug addiction who nevertheless appears to have his son’s best interests at heart.
Curtis Gates was murdered in 2001. Bo Agee was shot to death outside his home during a robbery attempt in 2004. It was by no means inevitable that William Gates and Arthur Agree would both manage to land on their feet, raise families and become productive members of society, as they have.
The makers of “Hoop Dreams” were criticized for helping Sheila Agee out financially during the filming of the documentary, and they no doubt crossed a line there. But James and Marx were right to reject the criticism. The first day they showed up at a Chicago playground to shoot footage of Sheila’s son, and William Gates, the lives of these young men changed forever.
Would they have excelled to the degree they did if cameras hadn’t been following them for five years? They may not have played in the NBA, but they surely benefited from all the attention they received — as has anyone fortunate enough to have discovered this film.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.