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Now over twenty years old, Hoop Dreams has achieved a place in American legend. The enormously popular hit documentary held audiences spellbound in 1994. Almost three hours in duration, it tells the story of two talented basketball hopefuls from Chicago's most dangerous housing projects. Just kids, they pursue a dream of making it as future NBA stars. That means getting on the right high school teams and going "downstate" to compete in high-profile tournament play.
Filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert followed Arthur Agee and William Gates for five years, documenting every bit of their lives. Their disadvantaged families struggle to stay together while the potential superstar sons make tough decisions in search of their dreams. It's not easy; the system seems to say that escape from the projects is impossible.
The boys must stay focused on their games and their schoolwork amid family stress and outside distractions. Arthur's father Bo leaves and is seen dealing drugs not far from the neighborhood playground. A well-meaning basketball scout recommends accepting scholarships to an upscale parochial school with a star basketball team, but the deal carries no security. When his parents can't keep up his part of the steep tuition, one boy must return to his public school at a distinct disadvantage -- the private school won't forward his transcripts until his bill is paid. One of the strongest scenes shows his parents bowing and scraping with the school's financial adviser, begging for the transcripts to be released in time to give their son a chance of getting into college.
Financial problems are at the core of every crisis. The Gates family loses 25% of its welfare check when William turns 18, which leads to grim hot dog dinners. An unpaid bill results in the power being turned off. But these are strong families; both mothers are dedicated to helping their boys realize their dreams. Emma Gates polices William's study habits and Sheila Agee's support of her boys is almost physical. When Arthur gives is mother a beautifully worded birthday letter, the pride on her face is its own reward.
Colleges use big promises and free visits to recruit both boys, even though their GPA scores may not be high enough to allow them to go. At one rally filmmaker Spike Lee advises the athletes to get the best deal they can. "These schools don't care about you, " he warns, "They only care about the games you might win for them." Originally judged an unstoppable player with a perfect attitude, William is sidelined by a knee injury. It develops into a momentum killer from which he never fully recovers.
Arthur and William become magnets for the 'hoop dreams' of others. Older brother Curtis looks to William to fulfill his own lost athletic potential. Curtis and Arthur's father Bo voices support for the boys but his criminal behavior also places a heavy burden on them to succeed. This pressure causes some nail-biting moments, as when William is too emotionally keyed-up to make two crucial free throws at the end of a close game.
Tempering the disappointments is Sheila Agee's joyful graduation from nursing class. We care strongly for these people, both the boys that start as wide-eyed fourteen year-olds and the parents that support them.
Hoop Dreams is compelling viewing. For the first time in movie history, the day-to-day reality of life for a disadvantaged American black family is depicted at length and in depth. The editorial selectivity of the filmmakers fashions a believable documentary narrative, helped greatly by the apparent invisibility of the camera crew. Nobody is caught staring at the lens or grandstanding. This can only come from shooting hundreds of hours of video, until the cameras are no longer noticed. Steve James' narration bridges unseen events and gaps in time; we can assume that cameras weren't welcome during arguments and breakups. When the film ends, one boy has moved on to Marquette and the other to a J.C. Both are still hoping their dreams will be fulfilled.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Hoop Dreams follows up their DVD of ten years ago, with a brighter and more stable image. The original footage was shot on a combination of Beta SP and 3/4" video, but the HD processing pulls everything possible out of the image. It definitely looks better than the cropped, enlarged 35mm version shown in theaters.
All of the older extras are here. The filmmakers discuss the production on one commentary track, and Arthur Agee and William Gates share a separate discussion. Three vintage segments from Siskel and Ebert's TV show champion Hoop Dreams and promote it for the Oscars. Extra scenes and trailers are present as well. The high-interest item is Life After "Hoop Dreams," a new forty-minute docu made primarily with video shot in 2004 and 2005. We follow both Agee and Gates and their family members to find out what became of their basketball careers, and where they are now. One of the best-known 'reality based' shows, Hoop Dreams left the boys at a good place in their ambitions. Not everything that has followed has been pleasant. It's essentially a "Hoop Dreams 2."
The essays included have been changed. The original piece from John Edgar Wideman is present on a folding insert, accompanied by a new essay from Robert Greene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.