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May Movie Challenge

May 13: Hoop Dreams | Documentary

Scott Tennant May 13, 2017


In the category of Documentary Scott has chosen Hoop Dreams (1994), directed by Steve James, featuring high school basketball players Arthur Agee and William Gates.


Before I go into this wonderful documentary, let me start with a warning; if you are a basketball fan, don’t watch Hoop Dreams for some basketball action. By the same token, if you AREN’T a basketball fan, don’t steer clear of Hoop Dreams for that reason; that would be akin to not watching Titanic because you aren’t into sailing. Basketball is but the backdrop for this excellent narrative documentary, that uses this backdrop as the setting for a story of class culture, poverty, opportunity, and the American Dream.

Hoop Dreams is such an incredible story, that you could honestly see a fictionalized version of this movie with hardly any changes. The accounts of Arthur Agee and William Gates are simultaneously tragic and wonderful, and despite starting down the road of high school basketball the same way, their paths wind through highs and lows on their own. It all starts in an inner city neighborhood basketball court, where Arthur and William both live and play and learn. This court is the backdrop for gang activity and drug deals, symbolizing how for many kids basketball is the way they can get out of the gutter. Arthur and William are both discovered by a scout for St. Joseph’s High School, a private school outside of the city with a renowned basketball program. This is the start of a great opportunity for the boys. Being plucked from the inner city court and given the opportunity at this prestigious school means they are that much more likely to avoid the gang activity, to avoid dropping out, and maybe even refine their skills to get picked up by a college. Once they enter St. Joseph’s, their paths diverge.

Let’s start with William’s story. William goes to St. Joseph’s and immediately is playing for the varsity team and starting. The comparisons to NBA star and St. Joseph’s alumni Isiah Thomas start flying already; the head coach remarks that even Thomas didn’t start all four years at St. Joseph’s. William is on the fast track to success at St. Joseph’s. William also begins to thrive in school, with basketball and a college scholarship as his motivation. But William’s family can no longer afford to pay the tuition to St. Joseph’s, and needs help or else William will have to leave St. Joseph’s and go back to the inner city public school he has worked so hard to avoid. Luckily, a good Samaritan in the St. Joseph’s network stepped up and paid the tuition for the basketball star’s family. This allows William to stay at St. Joseph’s and continue his growth as a player. He is getting letters from schools all the time now, and seems to be on top of the world. At the start of his junior year though, things take a turn for the worse; William tears the cartilage in his knee and needs surgery to get it repaired. This puts his whole basketball destiny in danger, as William misses the vast majority of the season, heading into the critical year for his college recruitment. Not only does the interest from the university’s begin to wane, but his coach seems a lot less interested in his development now that he can’t play. There’s no guarantee that he’ll ever be back to 100%. Without the motivation of basketball, William’s grades suffer as well, so even if he does get healthy again, he may not have the academic merit to get into the four-year universities.

Let’s check in with Arthur. His days at St. Joseph’s went a lot worse; he did not make the varsity team, instead playing for the freshman team off the bat. The coaches all remark on how he has potential to become a great player, but something is missing and his development is slower. He’s also not a standout student like William. Arthur seems content with doing the minimum it takes to skate by and stay on the team. He is not thriving like William is, and it may be in part because life at home is a lot more of a struggle for Arthur. His father is involved with drugs and has a difficult relationship with his mother. When she gets laid off, the power gets shut off in their home. There is a very harrowing scene of the family walking around in the dark, with just a flashlight and nothing else. The struggle for this family to make it on the welfare system is palpable. This means that Arthur does not have the same opportunities as other kids. When his family cannot pay St. Joseph’s tuition, there is nobody to come in and help him out; since he’s just a sophomore who has not played varsity ball, it’s probably a tougher sell. Arthur returns to the public school in the inner city, and works summers at Pizza Hut to help the family, whereas William goes to the Nike All-American basketball camp and rub elbows with major college coaches.

I don’t want to go into too much more detail, but this really is an inspiring coming-of-age tale. It will make you angry when you see the way that the coaches and scouts and people around these boys use them as tools for their own advancement. It will make you angry when you see how the welfare system fails Arthur and his family, leaving children cold and hungry with little chance of advancement. But by the same token, you get to see a lot of pure human joy within the sorrow of the situation, and it’s pretty inspiring. As a film, the movie is basically flawless. The pacing is incredible; I was honestly surprised when I read that it was over three hours long because the movie is so engaging and well-paced that it flies by. The editing is excellent; the two stories are entirely separate until the last twenty minutes of the film, but the editing is balanced and maintains the flow of the narrative. Arthur and William are both just inherently good kids, you can tell by watching that they don’t want to end up on the streets (William’s older brother serves as a cautionary tale throughout), and that they want to do the right thing. William has an excellent quote towards the end of the film, after his injury, and the birth of his daughter, and after he is a bit disillusioned with basketball:

“That’s why when somebody say, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, ‘if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.'”

I leave you all with one final thought on Hoop Dreams; it wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, because at the time, the category was not judge by other documentarians. It was judged by critics with their own agendas; they skewed the voting heavily by giving Hoop Dreams all 0’s (out of 10), and the documentaries that they wanted to be nominated they gave all 10’s. It was also revealed that at the screening of Hoop Dreams the critics judging it were so disinterested that they stopped it after twenty minutes. It’s only fitting that a movie about circumstance and race and class is snubbed so mightily by the very people who judge it. The system was changed the next year, and now only fellow documentarians judge the category.

Hoop Dreams is excellent. Go out of your way to watch it.

Grade: A+

Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.

Scott (or Uncle Scootz) is a business analyst in Charlotte, NC. After graduating from Clemson University and enjoying some time in Atlanta, Scott has embraced the Queen City. He likes basketball, board games, Back to the Future, and his Baby Little Pug named Mickey. Yell at him on instagram at breakdown_scott!