Directed by: Steve James
Premise: A documentary about two Black teenagers and their families living in Chicago while vying for basketball stardom.
What Works: Successful sports films aren’t just about sports. Athleticism is the vehicle to dramatize and explore other issues such as masculinity, economics, and human dignity. Hoop Dreams is a portrait of William Gates and Arthur Agee, teenagers living in Chicago in the early 1990s. Basketball is central to these young men’s existence and for the filmmakers it is a prism through which the filmmakers depict these people’s lives and by extension explore the daily realities of poor and working class people in the early 1990s. For these young men, basketball is not just a special interest; it is a way out of poverty and the hopes of these teenagers and their families hinge upon their success on the court. Basketball will lead to scholarships and higher education, which are otherwise inaccessible to these boys, and college basketball is imagined as a doorway to an NBA career. A professional basketball career is unlikely even for a talented college athlete but the filmmakers don’t chide or condescend to their subjects. Much like winning the lottery, basketball stardom is the dream of desperate people who don’t have many other routes to self-improvement. Hoop Dreams proceeds with that in mind. The film is an indictment of an economic and educational system that thrives on unrealistic goals and exploits these young men. Gates and Agee are recruited to play high school basketball but the school staff are not interested in educating them, only in using these boys to further the prestige of their basketball programs. The depiction of the high school athletics is unsparing and the fact that the schools and their coaching staff allowed themselves to be exposed this way speaks to the degree to which they accepted the abuse of these boys as tolerable and normal. Despite its obvious socio-economic interest, Hoop Dreams is not poverty porn. It doesn’t dwell in deprivation. The film provides an insightful and humanistic portrait of Gates and Agee and their families and the picture has moments of levity and humor as well as triumph and heartbreak. There is a wholeness to this film’s depiction of these people and their circumstances that makes it an extraordinary film.
What Doesn’t: Despite its nearly three-hour running time, Hoop Dreams stops prematurely. The documentary concludes at the point that both Gates and Agee have graduated from high school and on-screen text at the end of the film fills in what happened over the next couple of years. What’s described are some pretty dramatic and important changes in their lives that aren’t covered here. However, the 2007 film Hoop Reality documents what happened to Agee in the decade after Hoop Dreams.
Disc extras: The Criterion Collection release of Hoop Dreams includes a commentary track, the documentary “Life After Hoop Dreams,” deleted scenes, essays, a music video, trailers, and clips of Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discussing Hoop Dreams.
Bottom Line: Hoop Dreams captures a particular moment in American life but its portrait of these young men and their families transcends its specific circumstances. Hoop Dreams is a complex and empathetic portrait of people on the margins and the film illuminates the way social institutions weaponize dreams of athletic greatness to exploit the poor.
Episode: #945 (April 23, 2023)