Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Seven


#7 — Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
There are an abundance of reasons why sports stories work so well in the movies. The nature of the games themselves offers up a nice clean narrative line, and the duel of opposing teams offers a delineation between protagonists and antagonists as clear as anything since cowboys of conflicting temperaments donned ten gallon hats in black or white. The contests are fraught with tension, suspense, momentum, personality, and drive. In other words, everything that filmmakers try to create is built right in to the very endeavor that will naturally be the centerpiece of the story. Sports films can evoke strong reactions with the simplest of structures.

I suspect that’s representative of the sort of film Steve James and his collaborators thought they’d wind up with when they embarked on the project that eventually yielded Hoop Dreams. It seems modest enough on paper: follow two basketball players and they journey through their high school years. The film introduces Chicago youths Arthur Agee and William Gates, whose aspirations towards escaping the grinding poverty of their station in life are predicated entirely on parlaying their considerable neighborhood basketball skills into NBA careers. They are in the city that Michael Jordan presides over, after all, although it’s a different NBA icon who looms even larger for them. Isiah Thomas once lived a life not unlike theirs, commuting across town to play for a powerhouse private school, an effort that started him on a path that led to the Detroit Pistons and two championship rings. Both Agee and Gates start playing for that school, but then their paths diverge in unexpected ways.

Hoop Dreams is one of those documentaries that inspires constant marveling at the good fortune of the filmmakers. They couldn’t have possibly known all the fascinating turns these two boys’ tales would take the first time they trained their cameras on them. Injuries and championship runs, familial triumph and pain, moments of immeasurable pride and shifts that produce heartbreaking sadness are all present across the film’s nearly three hour running time. That’s enough to make a movie about basketball entertaining. Hoop Dreams, however, is about much more.

It is about lives lived teetering on the precipice where possibility slopes down into abject hopelessness. It is about the extreme difficulty people face in extricating themselves from dire circumstances in a culture that is designed to perpetuate personal circumstances. It is about the way talented young men are elevated for the physical skills only to be quickly discarded as those skills erode. It is about the contrast between cheering masses for boys playing a game and the rows upon rows of empty chairs when a middle-aged woman truly defies the odds and earns her nursing assistant certification. And it is about how people of wildly different backgrounds, who would never connect under any other circumstances, can have a friendly, affectionate conversation together when they’ve all traveled to watch their respective offspring take to the floor for a run at the state championship. The initial goal may very well have been modest, just a simple movie about basketball. The end result is profoundly different, stunning in its scope and thrillingly complex.

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