Hoop Dreams: The Criterion Collection
Enveloped by the cold, decaying, concrete embrace of the inner-city, dodging drug dealers and gang members on their way to woefully under-funded schools staffed with teachers either too apathetic, too scared, or too overwhelmed by corruptive influences beyond their control to provide proper instruction, where else, pray tell, is a young African American male expected to find solace other than the playground basketball court? (Perhaps a makeshift recording studio, but that's another lament for another time.) And after decades of games played, refined, and heightened in this contentious, competitive milieu, expanding beyond the set-shot and bounce-pass to the innovation of, for example, the crossover dribble and the slam dunk, can it be considered anything but inevitable that the National Basketball Association quickly came to be dominated by individuals of color hailing specifically from the economically depressed neighborhoods of this country's major metropolises? Until 1994, insight into this man-made sociological phenomenon had been provided by several noteworthy books (most notably Rick Telender's Heaven is a Playground), but the breadth of the process, from recruitment to coaching to probable disappointment, was so shadowy and involved as to be rendered completely incomprehensible to outsiders. Hoop Dreams (1994), a four-year-plus labor of love by the documentary filmmaking team of Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, changed that. Following two young prospects, Arthur Agee and William Gates, from their playground discovery to their senior years in high school, the film lays bare a system that teasingly builds up as swiftly as it ruthlessly breaks down. This might've been achievement enough, but the filmmakers' compassion and humanity ultimately gets the better of them, and their narrative, directed by the mercurial whims of the universe, becomes a living, breathing Dickensian document of urban American life that may never be surpassed.
The journey begins with a freelance scout (aka a "bush beater") plucking Agee out of a pick-up game, impressed with his quick first step, and hauling him out of his rough Garfield Park environs to the comparatively verdant Chicago suburbs where St. Joseph's, one of the city's prep basketball powerhouses, is holding a mini-camp for a bleacherful of 14-year-old might-bes. Agee and his family get a private consultation with the legendary coach Gene Pingatore, who dangles the promise of a scholarship to a top college as reward for four years of hard work before trotting out his most successful graduate and primary recruitment draw, Detroit Pistons All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, to close the deal. Despite his seductive spiel, Pingatore expresses immediate doubts about Agee's potential (he acknowledges the skill but doesn't see the confidence), while talking up the current year's freshman blue chip, Gates, who he thinks has the raw talent to make the pros in another six to eight years. Both Agee and Gates enroll at St. Joe's, but only the latter makes the varsity team. One year later, Agee is essentially discarded by Pingatore and the school due to financial hardship (both parents lose their jobs), though they scramble to assist Gates as he encounters similar obstacles. While Agee is consigned to the turmoil of an inner city public high school, where his grades and game regress, Gates flourishes, earning "next Isaiah Thomas" accolades from the top Chicago sportswriters, and (not that it matters) making the honor roll. However, as good as Gates is, he fails to take his team to the state championship in his first two years, and, tragically, misses most of his third year when he tears ligaments in one of his knees. As Gates's fortunes plummet, reaching a gut-wrenching low when he pulls up lame in front of a star-studded audience of college coaches at an annual Nike development camp for elite high school seniors, Agee's outlook suddenly improves, driving the film to a rousing and unlikely finish twice as improbable as anything John G. Avildsen ever attempted.
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Subjecting Hoop Dreams to the tidiness of a plot summary is to do the film a profound disservice. Though Arthur and William are undeniably the tale's protagonists, it's the travails of their friends and family that give the story its uniquely poignant and, at times, heartbreaking texture. For instance, there's Arthur's father, Bo, who tumbles into a drug addiction so consuming that at one point he saunters off a playground basketball court to cop a fix in full view of his son and the filmmakers. Bo eventually bounces back through the salvation of the church, but even his resilience produces a number of difficult scenes, like his humbling supplication in the bursar's office at St. Joe's to free up Arthur's transcript. But it's the arc of Arthur's mother, Sheila, that lingers most indelibly; a proud woman who never cracks under the unfair misfortune heaped upon her by a callous system, her redemption, delivered via a hard earned nursing certificate, is cheering even as her achievement is celebrated in a room filled with empty folding chairs. As has been noted by several critics, the only event liable to draw crowds in the inner city is a high school basketball game, where dreams are dashed far more readily than they're realized. The film's final miracle is its end-credit epilogue informing us that Arthur and William have survived their respective disappointments and, thus far, an early grave.
The Criterion Collection presents Hoop Dreams in a fine full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Interestingly, for a film so generous in its running time, Criterion has opted for brevity with this release, seeking only to enhance one's viewing experience rather than broaden the context (which would be difficult given today's vastly different recruiting process that now includes scouts from the pros and the major shoe companies). Both audio commentaries, one featuring the filmmakers and the other reuniting Gates and Agee (who've stayed in touch over the years), are exemplary. The former offers some very candid self-criticism as to whether they overstepped their role as documentarians (or if they did enough as reasonably compassionate human beings), while the latter allows Arthur and William their chance to sound off on the process and reminisce (sadly, ten years later, there's additional pain to pick over). Also worthwhile is a collection of segments from "Siskel & Ebert" following their tireless advocacy from Sundance to a Best of the Decade special. A 37-page booklet offers essays by John Edgar Wideman and Alexander Wolff, a reprint of Michael Wise's 2004 Washington Post article checking in on the Agee and Gates families, and a dedication from the filmmakers. Also on board are a music video and theatrical trailers. Keep-case.