Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Steve James’ ‘Hoop Dreams’

Hoop Dreams Movie Essay - 1994 Steve James Documentary Film

“That’s why, when somebody says, you know, ‘When you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me,’ and all that stuff, I should say to them, ‘Well, if I don’t make it, watch you don’t forget about me.’” — William Gates

One of the great things about sports, is that once an athlete has reached the professional ranks of their respective field, talent — more than any other factor — is what ultimately secures their active prominence. At that point, their race, economic background, their social status, whatever it is that may hinder individuals in other fields of endeavor, can fade in the light of quantifiable skill. There are few other occupations where undeniable ability is the overriding key to prolonged accomplishment. There is the individual athlete, and he or she is either good at what they do, or they are not.

Getting to this point, however, is another matter. Before reaching the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment, said athlete is at the mercy of all forms of discrimination, from the color of their skin to where they were born to how much money their parents might have. The passion is there all along — it’s there from the start — but that enthusiasm can only go so far. Even incontestable talent, at this stage in an athlete’s life, isn’t always enough to secure their path to success.

This is where Hoop Dreams comes in. A riveting documentary about two young African-American men from the Chicago area, this 1994 film follows William Gates and Arthur Agee from their early teens, just as they’re entering high school, to their first year of college. The reality of their basketball love is born from the humble origins of blacktop street ball, an inconspicuous foundation for so many. The fantasy, on the other hand, as seen early on in Hoop Dreams, is the National Basketball Association. With their sights set on NBA eminence, William and Arthur are at home when Hoop Dreams begins, both enamored by the league’s 1988 All-Star Game, which just so happened to be held in their native Illinois metropolis. The boys’ focus is split: half is devoted to legendary Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan (who would win the game’s MVP award), and half centers on Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, a Chicago kid made good and an athletic paradigm that will figure prominently, if indirectly, in the lives of both Arthur and William.

Sitting with their families, William in a Cabrini–Green housing project, Arthur in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, the 14-year-olds look on in awe. William is hunched over, captivated by the action. But there is also something studied in his gaze, as if that level of achievement is just within reach. Arthur, seated on the floor, watches wide-eyed and eager. He is almost giddy as he proclaims his intentions when he, too, enters the NBA. While several city blocks separate these two budding stars, their enacted desires, foretold by the cross-cutting of their TV viewing, will continually intersect. As they are funneled through numerous obstacles and accomplishments, a shared obsession will unite their deviating paths. William will appear to have more opportunity and thus more support, whereas Arthur will be constantly behind the curve. In both cases, their families will play a significant part in their journey, in ways that have to do with basketball and in ways that don’t. And in the end, basketball itself will prove to be more than a game. It will be the common denominator that guides and shapes their livelihood; it will be their reason for being, for their joy and despair. It will also be but one aspect of the vast social tapestry woven with great care and insight by Hoop Dreams’ assiduous architects, filmmakers Steve James (writer, director, producer and editor), Peter Gilbert (producer and cinematographer) and Frederick Marx (writer, producer and editor).

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Hoop Dreams Movie Essay - 1994 Steve James Documentary Film

The first stop for William and Arthur is St. Joseph High School in Westchester. This is where Isiah Thomas went to school, and the all-star’s shadow looms large over all who follow in his footsteps. It’s not just the succeeding athletes, though, it’s also the school’s head coach, Gene Pingatore, who is forever aspiring to revive the sensation he once had with his leading prospect (like most coaches, he is also motivated by the hardline intensity of his own displaced ambitions). During an enrollment program at St. Jo’s, Thomas actually shows up, stepping on the court like God in 80s-era short shorts. He even participates in brief one-on-one contests with the boys. For Arthur, the match, underscored in slow-motion, is simply magical. It’s also intimidating. And it’s just the beginning.

William and Arthur are scared, daunted by the commitment and the resulting expectations. According to Pingatore, the magic ingredients for success are talent, confidence, personality and intelligence. That’s a lot to ask of these teenage kids in their fish-out-of-water freshman year. Aside from each dealing with a three-hour round-trip commute to the suburbs, William, whose established talent has already garnered media attention, starts immediately on the school’s top ranked varsity team, while Arthur, who struggles with grades throughout Hoop Dreams (as does William, for that matter), faces a primarily monetary impediment. William is fortunate to have philanthropist benefactors, but Arthur isn’t so lucky. His father gets laid off and funds that have already been restricted start to tighten. Soon, Arthur is forced to leave the school in the middle of the year, transferring to the public Marshall High School where he makes a shy transition but will eventually, like William, play at the varsity level. Still, compounding the understood insult that improved on-court performance would have likely aided in Arthur’s sustained enrollment (representatives from St. Joseph weren’t happy with their self-induced portrayal, especially as they appear to deny Arthur promised support for purely pecuniary reasons), financial hurdles hit home and the Agee family has their lights and gas turned off. Now on welfare, Arthur’s mother, Sheila, simply can’t keep up with the mounting bills. With three children to take care of, the family is living on $268 a month. The despondent state of affairs surely says something about systemic, debilitating injustices, particularly within poorer African-American communities, but it also goes to show, as Hoop Dreams repeatedly will, how pivotal athletic attainment is in the fickle fates of these two young boys. 

While the focus of Hoop Dreams is centrally placed on Arthur and William, each are plagued by the lingering reverberations of other men in their lives. William’s brother, Curtis, likewise relished pro basketball aspirations, and he, too, was very good. But those aims were cut short when his attitude got in the way (he was deemed “uncoachable”). Now working as a security guard, he is, in his own words, “just a regular guy on the street.” He is the embodiment of dissipated dreams, projecting his faded ambition on his younger brother, hoping William will succeed because he never could. Similarly, Arthur’s troubled father, Arthur “Bo” Agee, wants a better life for his son, but his recurrent shortcomings impinge on these ideals. During one astonishing, heartbreaking scene, Arthur and his father are outside playing ball when Bo casually slips off, for all to see — Arthur, the public, the camera — and purchases drugs from a dealer adjacent to the court. While a degree of redemption lies ahead for Bo, after a bout with crack-cocaine addiction, a stint in jail and subsequent efforts to ingratiate himself in Arthur’s life, William’s father also appears out of nowhere. Having long been absent from the picture, however, his suspect entry seems cued solely by dollar signs. 

These peripheral male figures provide scenes of considerable dramatic tension and instances of genuinely affecting engagement — Bo, the encumbering wildcard; Curtis, a sad reminder of what could have been. They also represent the incarnation of real-world consequences beyond basketball. As much as Hoop Dreams concerns the sports-centric plight of William and Arthur, it is perhaps even more significantly an illustrative case study of what perpetually imperils men (and women) of a certain social, economic and racial constitution. These individual stories encapsulate the difficulties of living in a city marred by drug use, domestic abuse, poverty, unemployment and pervasive crime (it may be sheer coincidence, but the sight of a police car cruising past Marshall evokes an ominous insinuation not likely to be glimpsed at St. Joseph’s). During production, Arthur himself was robbed at gunpoint, and years after the film was released, Arthur’s older half-brother was murdered, as were Curtis and Bo. 

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Hoop Dreams Movie Essay - 1994 Steve James Documentary Film

So much is stacked against Arthur and William, which is tragic enough, but the jarring realization that they are not alone in facing these barriers emphasizes the wider import of what Hoop Dreams illustrates. At the same time, though they are not exceptional in this regard, William and Arthur are privileged to be in a position of having a way out, and that alone is a miraculous fulfilment. Although they are living one slip-up away from regret and reflection years later upon what went wrong, basketball, for now, provides an outlet. And yet, because nothing about Hoop Dreams is so simple, even that advantage is blemished by mixed messages. See, for example, when William attends the Nike All-American Summer Camp in Princeton (while Arthur works a summer job at Pizza Hut). To a bleacher full of hopefuls, famed sportscaster Dick Vitale enthuses, “This is America! You can make something of your life!” It’s a marked contrast to the caution aired by filmmaker Spike Lee, who delivers a dose of reality and speaks of the perils of young Black men with brutal honesty, the exploitation they face and the inescapable stereotypes that haunt them all. Then there are the college recruiters and scouts, one of whom calls the dubious enlistment process a “meat market,” and admits he just hopes to serve “professional meat.”

To offset this pessimistic context, James and company cultivate their film with moments of tremendous emotional resonance, enriched by an innate sense of composition, pacin, and the discernment to preserve expressive reprieves of humbling sincerity. William and Arthur and their respective relations are remarkably receptive to the camera, speaking naturally and openly, like they’re just grateful to have someone to talk to. The candor lends Hoop Dreams a comfortable, convivial atmosphere: low-key, unaffected, vulnerable. Spontaneous sequences range from contented digressions, like a trip to McDonalds, where the Agee family talk with some elderly white folks from another school, high fiving each other and appreciating their schools’ underdog temperament, to occasional domestic surprises, as when William suddenly discloses having not only a girlfriend, but a child, a fact hitherto unknown by even the filmmakers. William later said he didn’t want to come off like just another black kid, “having babies out of wedlock,” fearing, such is the prevailing stigma, that audiences would look down on him. In any case, it’s just another thing to deal with: William notes at one point, “As soon as you don’t tighten one screw, everything falls apart.” 

Though their poise will occasionally waver, William and Arthur are persistently charismatic and amiable. It’s easy to forget, after all, these are just kids. To that end, Hoop Dreams, seemingly inadvertently, becomes a fascinating record of individual maturity and adolescent evolution, physically as well as psychologically. This is a difficult time for even the most affluent teen; one can only fathom what it’s like for those under the inordinate pressures of William and Arthur. If it’s not the grueling, albeit authentic, practices and the physical toll taken on these fragile bodies (William suffers a frightening knee injury), it’s the burden of scholastic necessity, where ACT test scores are as critical as a well-honed jump shot. 

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Hoop Dreams Movie Essay - 1994 Steve James Documentary Film

All the same, for William, colleges come calling, lots of them, and his mother’s heartrending pride is palpable as she reads the promising letters of endorsement. Her joy, by comparison, is touchingly paralleled by the gratification of Arthur’s mom as she graduates from nursing school, a beautiful moment of individual, against-the-odds triumph, away from the basketball court and in the realm of, some may argue, more pragmatic enterprise. And in the end, William and Coach Pingatore look on with envy as Arthur continues to play, for Marshall has traveled to the state championship while St. Joseph failed to advance (an ironic, somewhat satisfying twist). William and Arthur will then go their separate ways, the former to Marquette University in Wisconsin, the latter to Mineral Area Junior College in Missouri. There, Arthur is one of the school’s seven African American students. Six play for the basketball team.

Work on Hoop Dreams started in 1986, as an originally planned 30-minute program for local public broadcasting. Eight years and roughly 250 hours of footage later, the film premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary and setting the standard for feature-length documentary filmmaking (while deserved, its lone Oscar nomination, for editing, would be the cause of much ensuing controversy). Though the royalties and notoriety from the film proved beneficial, neither William nor Arthur ever made it to the NBA, which isn’t, despite their apparent skill, all that surprising. It is a miniscule percentage of youth who actually come close to reaching this goal. But that possibility, however slim, is the enduring spirit of the American Dream (or so we are told), where ambition and determination can open any door to prosperity, as long as one is willing to work hard and pay their dues. Of course, as Hoop Dreams so poignantly shows, the truth of the matter is often far more complicated. 

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.