(Note: The Up series, which is now at eight films and counting, is the pinnacle of documentary filmmaking, but at an individual film level Hoop Dreams is superior. I wrote about the Up series here.)
Hoop Dreams follows five years in the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee – two top basketball phenoms in the
area. It shows how a top private school recruits them when they are eighth graders, their challenge to fit in with the mostly white student body, their financial struggles to pay for school, and the adversity they come up against in trying to make it to be a top college basketball recruit. Chicago
You may be thinking that you are not that interested in basketball, or even sports at all, so you would not be interested in Hoop Dreams. Well, this film is about far more than basketball. We also meet the families of these two young men. We see one struggling to deal with a father who is a drug addict, but who he still loves. The cameras catch him actually witnessing his father buy drugs. We see the mother of one overjoyed at finally achieving a degree – and then the camera pans away to show that not one single person she knew attended the ceremony. It’s an absolutely killer scene.
And you don’t have to understand how basketball is played to follow this film. Really, it could be about any sort of young, talented person. Think of them as musical prodigies, practicing the piano for hours every day, placing themselves under enormous pressure to succeed, and be just a little bit better than everybody else that has the same goals they do. What pressures do they get from their families, their friends, their coaches, and most of all, from themselves?
After those recommendations from both Siskel and Ebert I sought this film out. This was in the days of VHS rentals. I watched it and was blown away. Unfortunately, the film soon disappeared (much like the previous film I reviewed – Once Were Warriors). DVDs came along, but Hoop Dreams remained unavailable. Finally, Criterion released a top notch DVD set of this film. I have to say that I am often amused at some of the films Criterion chooses to put out editions for, but when it comes to Hoop Dreams I wish I could personally shake the hand of whoever at Criterion pushed for this film to be one of them.
In addition to the movie and a follow-up, there is a commentary track from both Gates and Agee, talking about what they were thinking in scenes, about the white filmmakers who they laughingly remind were scared to death when they first came into the kids’ neighborhood, and about some of the things that have happened to the two of them since the film was made.
I will mention that there was a 2007 “sequel” released that was titled Hoop Reality. Anyone who is a fan of the original movie will likely be disappointed by this follow-up. First, no one involved in Hoop Dreams had anything to do with Hoop Reality, except for Arthur Agee. And as the film unwinds, it becomes apparent that this is not so much a documentary as it is a way to try to raise money for Agee’s causes. While they may be very worthwhile, Hoop Reality is not much of a documentary, especially when compared to the original.
Perhaps the biggest impact that Hoop Dreams had was on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – the people who hand out the Oscars. Their Documentary category was notoriously insular – out of touch at best, and corrupt at worst. When Hoop Dreams did not even receive a nomination for Best Documentary, both Siskel and Ebert brought all the light they could to bear on the “selection process”. It was revealed that the nominees were picked by a group of Academy members, none of whom had ever actually made a documentary. They would start to watch a candidate film. If they didn’t feel like seeing any more they would wave a flashlight around in the theater. If enough people waved flashlights, the film was stopped and the next candidate was started. The Academy members who were doing the Documentary candidates that year stopped Hoop Dreams after a mere fifteen minutes had elapsed. The embarrassed Academy was forced to change the way documentaries were selected going forward.
Hoop Dreams clocks in at a little under three hours. Despite that, I have watched it multiple times, as well as also watching it with the commentary tracks on the Criterion edition DVD. At no point have I ever felt that the film dragged. If anything, covering five years of Gates’ and Agee’s lives makes the film go by quite quickly. Even if you have never watched a documentary before, this is one that you should at least try to see. I give it my highest recommendation.
Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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