Friday, September 12, 2014

Hoop Dreams (1994)

USA, 170 minutes, documentary
Director: Steve James
Writers: Steve James, Frederick Marx
Photography: Peter Gilbert
Music: Ben Sidran
Editors: William Haugse, Steve James, Frederick Marx
With: William Gates, Arthur Agee, Steve James, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur "Bo" Agee, Earl Smith, Gene Pingatore

A couple of things about Hoop Dreams: First, perhaps most remarkably, it hasn't dated much for a documentary that somehow is already 20 years old. The story of two Chicago youths with a knack for playing basketball and dreams of turning that into their ticket to better lives remains, if anything, more poignant, compelling, and relevant than ever. This is accomplished partly by its willingness to slip into the syntax of classic Hollywood sports tales—for me, Breaking Away and Hoosiers come to mind immediately. Some of the best parts emerge directly out of the drama of important games with high stakes. Even more, it's accomplished by director and co-producer Steve James's willingness to settle on a story and follow it down its tortuous path. It's the story of any sports career. It's the story of any life.

Make that two stories: Arthur Agee and William Gates. The second remarkable point about Hoop Dreams is how short and incomplete it feels, even at nearly three hours. It focuses on Agee and Gates from when they are 14 and looking to use basketball as a leg up and a way in, both with talent enough to receive financial assistance from a Chicago private high school with a successful basketball program, St. Joseph. The picture follows the twists and turns of their high school careers and suddenly leaves us with only a few clues about their subsequent college careers. It's up to us to rush to Wikipedia to fill in what has happened with their lives since then, including whether or not they ever made it to the NBA. Hoop Dreams is so good at what it does it's virtually guaranteed most people seeing it will take the time to poke around for that information.

In fact, that's where the real spoilers are, so I will leave that information for you to discover on your own after you see this movie. Even across the four or so years that the picture covers it's difficult to guess what's going to happen next. Gates enters the program practically a star already as a freshman but is sidelined by injury for most of his junior and senior years. Agee does all right on the court, though never reaching Gates's heights at St. Joseph. Financial problems force him out of the school altogether in his sophomore year, after which he returns to the public school system. Ultimately, in a surprise to everyone including contemporary media observers, he gets a bite at a state championship when he takes his public school team far into the playoffs in his senior year.

Once again we are in the territory of "documentary gold"—events and moments that happen serendipitously in front of the camera, raising the level of what we see and experience to something nearly along the lines of great art. Hoop Dreams feels like a novel: sprawling, detailed, engrossing, surprising, structured, artfully balanced yet with ragged lines and vectors and wonderful small moments. That must be another reason it rarely feels dated. At the same time, James also manages to give a sense that these two young men and their families could have been anyone. James didn't just get lucky, or he got lucky simply by deciding to pay attention. He finds giant hopes compressed into the meat grinder of limited opportunity, poverty, and the specter of simmering racism. The wonder is that it seems so easy. Pick two, commit, and film. That's all he did.

That's not to deny the wonderful particularities of these two stories, however, which is what makes this movie, along with doses of luck in what was captured on film. Arthur's father Bo and William's brother Curtis are two key sideline stories, each nursing his own failure and unfairly seeking redemption for perceived (and misperceived) shortcomings by imposing an outsize dream on his son or brother. In one extraordinary scene, Bo shows up at a playground court where Arthur and his friends are playing. At that point, Bo and Arthur's mother Sheila have separated and not much has been seen of Bo. He is shirtless and loose, a little too loose, embarrassing Arthur when he attempts to compete. Then he wanders away and James's voiceover informs us that the playground has lately become a site of drug dealing. Later, Bo returns to the family, a recovering addict and full of God and himself, though sincerely humbled. Such fleeting glimpses hint achingly at the wells of pain going on just beyond what we see here.

Indeed, the powerful crosscurrents of the narrative remain a critical key to the visuals throughout, which operate as much as possible within the documentary fly-on-the-wall aesthetic of Frederick Wiseman, passively observing. But James urgently has a story to tell—make that two stories, make that eight, make that many, many, many—and that is why he injects his narrative voiceover. The narrative is what makes this film so powerful and special in the end, and enduring. That's why we rush to Wikipedia. We still want to know how it ends.

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