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Even the most ardent fans of "Pulp Fiction" will concede that two and a half hours of Tarantino can become a bit tedious. So how is it that "Hoop Dreams", a low-budget, three-hour documentary by previously unknown directors, managed to break through the impatient, assault-me-with-blood-and-bad-jokes sensibility of today's moviegoers to earn praise from Loews audiences?
The film has no chance of making blockbuster waves or blockbuster profits (to be both a blockbuster and a documentary seems near impossible) but "Hoop Dreams" has carried itself through the United States and Europe more pervasively and successfully than expected--and it is important to ask why.
Perhaps basketball, the main subject of "Hoop Dreams," is the source of its popularity. But this film cannot just be deemed a "basketball movie". Grouping it in a lump with "White Men Can't Jump" would be as much of a travesty as categorizing the engrossing documentary "Paris Is Burning" with the much more shallow "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." More than a basketball movie, "Hoop Dreams" asks questions about social conditions that require our immediate attention. By exploring one subject so intensively, the film manages to transcend itself and delves into issues ranging from domestic violence to drug dealing to affirmative action.
"Hoop Dreams" tells the charged and turbulent stories of two inner-city Chicago teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee. Both aspire to careers in professional basketball, and both spend their adolescent years on their respective neighborhood courts. Film makers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert follow the pair for five full years, beginning with freshman year of high school and ending with freshman year of college, through family struggles, vibrant victories, and finally to the harsh realities that undercut the "dreams" of the film's title. William and Arthur's dreams are born, cultivated, encouraged, exploited and destroyed. The movie shows how and why their dreams of NBA stardom become less like dreams and more like bitter aftertastes.
The crucial turns in the narrative arise from the influence and intervention of school administrators and coaches as well as those of parents and siblings. At the start of the film we sense the same excitement and anticipation that both boys do--William and Arthur appear to be incredibly talented, and both are sought out by scouts who cruise urban Chicago's asphalt looking for skilled young players.
They are both recruited to attend St. Joseph's, a private high school an hour and a half away in the suburbs, reputed for its academics and even more for its basketball program. A faded cardboard cutout of Detroit Pistons legend Isaiah Thomas, who graduated from the school, decays in the trophy display case.
The unrelenting commodification of William and Arthur starts here. Aggressive and patronizing, St. Joseph's coach Gene Pingatore incessantly waxes nostalgic about Isaiah, as if to pound constantly into each boy's mind that Thomas was the one recruit that did what St. Joseph's wanted: he made it to the the NBA. In Pingatore's eyes, Thomas' fame and fortune lend testimony to St. Joseph's High School's everlasting committment to the underprivileged, untapped talent of Chicago's inner-city African-American population. Read the message from St. Joseph's administration to all basketball recruits: if you don't look good, we don't look good.
The pressure is on Gates and Agee to perform, and the pressure comes from all sides. In addition to the constant upbraiding from coach Pingatore, Arthur's father Bo ("I could've played the pros") reminds Arthur that he represents the family's last chance for success, and William's brother Curtis ("I almost played the pros") imposes his own lost dreams on William. It is no wonder that Bo Agee and Curtis Gates invest so much interest in their younger kin: they don't see much of a future for themselves. Bo Agee gets laid off work at various factories, eventually leaves home, develops a crack addiction, and then tries to come clean.
Curtis Gates goes through spells of unemployment, but finally gets a job from his brother's private sponsors who own Encyclopedia Britannica. As we watch family dynamics, the movie yet again reveale the tribulations of inner-city life in the heroic, if resigned, strength of the mothers and the conspicuous absences and non-committal waverings of the fathers.
The movie's message is timely, given America's recent political swing to the Right. Any film about inner-city deprivation confronts head-on the issues that Clinton put to Congress in his Crime Bill. "Hoop Dreams" actually lends validity to some of the arguments that shot down Clinton's liberalism-gone-awry "midnight basketball league" idea. If the lottery of success is so unpromising for young boys who dream of being stars, why should they be encouraged to play basketball at midnight?
Why should inner-city youth be targeted as a population capable of nothing but becoming professional athletes? Would Bill want Chelsea shooting hoops, or would be rather she be doing her homework or sleeping come moonrise? According to the grim statistics, these kids are almost sure to go nowhere in professional basketball, even if they are talented.
Perhaps the movie implies that we shouldn't be pouring money into programs that spawn hoop dreams, breed hopeful young basketball players, and then destroy their confidence to the point that they lose self-respect and likely become resentful of the system that encouraged them. Certainly any program that provides an alternative to the streets is better than nothing, but ideally an inner-city youth program wouldn't rely on the lore of the American basketball star for its appeal.
But the good thing is that none of these questions is posited outright. The text of the film does not include the discourse of politics; it is simply the talk of daily life. And, in fact, "Hoop Dreams" was not made with film but rather with high-quality video, with no pretense of artistic ingenuity. It is the medium of video which allowed the filmmakers to take five years of footage on such a small budget, and perhaps video proved the most appropriate format for a documentary that needn't be clouded over with aesthetic concerns.
Undeniably topical, "Hoop Dreams" is not just a movie about basketball. It captivates its audience at every smooth pass and at every slam-dunk, but it is more far-reaching than the hype of a Nike commercial and vastly more politically-infused than a Duke game. See it, and see what's going on.
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