Of the unforgettable moments that abound in Hoop Dreams, there’s one quiet and fleeting image that’s never left this critic: of a few children sitting on the front porch of a house somewhere in the Chicago projects, bundled together in a fashion that casually conveys the intimacy of a large family living in limited space. One child’s arm is evocatively crooked through a hole in the porch’s screen door, embodying the comfort that can be found even in ratty circumstances. This image is worth several books, rather than a thousand words, cutting through the guilt, outrage, and greedy futility that surrounds the United States’s ever-escalating class inequality, connecting everyday class tragedies intimately to the faces of the marginalized. William Gates and Arthur Agee, the black teens who’re recruited by the largely white, comparatively upper-crust St. Joseph High School in the early 1990s with the hopes of playing basketball in the NBA like their hero, Isiah Thomas, aren’t statistics to be bandied about in a war of rhetoric. They’re human beings.
The filmmakers, Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx, are never not cognizant of their subjects’ humanity. Hoop Dreams is that rarity: a deeply felt, shrewdly observed process documentary that’s neither sentimental nor unduly intellectualized. James, who’s credited as the director, doesn’t melodramatically over-emphasize incident; he refuses to turn the film into the sort of misery porn that invites easy empathy at the expense of fostering an insidiously distancing condescension. This restraint is all the more remarkable when one considers the story itself, which concerns two large families marked by enough hardship to fill a season of The Wire, but James and his collaborators never compromise their project’s bracingly matter-of-fact sobriety. The filmmakers, at least partially governed by the necessity and spontaneity of catching as catch can, often leave the conventionally juiciest details off the screen, allowing us to disconcertingly catch up in between the ellipses on the rebound. Though this decision has practical and moral implications, also reflecting a hesitancy to exploit the families’ hardship, there’s also a dramatic benefit, as we’re acquainted with the suddenness of the ups and downs that reflect the instabilities of unscripted life, particularly as lived on low incomes and stifled infrastructural support.
The process under the film’s consideration isn’t merely the hypocritical and well-publicized rules of engagement that characterize the lies that (predominantly) white men in power sell (predominantly) black boys in the hopes of roping them into a lucrative sporting enterprise—should the children be so lucky as to make the cut. Hoop Dreams is about a basketball dream as a microcosm of the American dream, that stubbornly ever-present fantasy of winning a metaphoric lottery ticket that whisks you out of a life spent at the bottom of all lists, with the exception of bill-collection schedules.
Yet the film isn’t an anti-capitalist harangue either; it would be easier to shake, to “explain,” and to subsequently write off, even approvingly, if it were. But James refuses to shortchange the real lure of success and the vastly craved attention that comes with public excellence. The basketball scenes are exhilarating, particularly the slow-motion sequences that emphasize reality’s brief, teasing convergence with the glory that haunts the boys’ fantasies. Similar, once again, to the omniscient thematic vantage point later offered by The Wire, Hoop Dreams observes a portion of America as a vast play in which everyone is assigned their roles, and the deviousness of that play remains unchecked because people accept their roles no matter how unflattering. There’s something inherently human in the desire to do a job or to fulfill a social function, no matter how unfair or unappealing it may be. We have an innate need to actualize.
James doesn’t reduce anyone to a talking point, including the coaches or even the recruiters, some of whom clearly believe in the sport and the children, who fight battles to make instructive impressions upon their students, and who’re barely making ends meet themselves (there’s an intense, touching moment between Gates and Earl Smith, his first scout, when they reconnect years later). James doesn’t vilify the wealthier people who offer themselves to Gates and Agee as potential patrons; they’re playing their roles too, and the circulation of their money offers a teasing hint of the opportunities that should be offered to Gates and Agee’s communities at large, which have shabby, over-crowded schools that encourage the students to check out before they’ve barely crossed the threshold. Gates and Agee’s families, though considerably more sympathetic than the school bureaucrats who sell them a line they don’t always fulfill, are shown to essentially subscribe to the same rigged rules as those in power. These families, no matter what unfairness they weather, can’t shake a core faith in the “system” as a deity that might eventually grant them a wish.
Because this system, which pulls funding from city schools, crowds families together in projects, eliminates proletariat jobs, and grants benefits to “thoroughbreds” that should be available to all children, also provides the illusory hope that’s necessary for the lower classes to live with it. American sports aren’t just entertainment. They offer an implicative fantasy, like that of reality television, of anyone being able to potentially join their ranks, which is a pivotal balm necessary to keeping society’s lower gears greased and obliging. Call it low-risk hope. Though this hope occasionally yields real progress, such as when Arthur’s mother receives a nursing degree while raising several kids alone on welfare that’s alternately available and withheld, the latter of which is terrifyingly illustrated by a scene of the family wandering around in their home in the dark once the power has been cut out due to non-payment. Though it’s never spelled out, it’s clear that Arthur’s basketball aspirations kept his mother focused too.
Much of this social context is subsumed casually into the narrative, reflected in Gates and Agee’s self-questioning determination to “make it” as Thomas did, to shed their skins as projects kids with all the problems that stereotype entails, including absent or ex-con fathers. Hoop Dreams is an epic, fluid, intricate panorama of the intersection between private and corporatized American life, suggesting a theoretical Robert Altman adaptation of a Richard Price novel, but it’s centered on the two teens with the titular wishes, and on the backdrops that comprise the fabric of their lives. The lively visual tableaus, particularly those set against the Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park neighborhoods where Gates and Agee grow up, offer densely textured, multi-grounded portraits of society in peace and in violent extremis. No visual, though, is more memorable than Gates and Agee’s respective faces, as their earnestness and naïveté devolves into hopelessness and despair, which somehow transitions back to qualified optimism again, as their lives spin through a series of loop-de-loops that often finds them switching places on a brutal, terrifying social spectrum that’s, nevertheless, not without its moments of grace.
As the liner notes explain, Hoop Dreams was one of the first films shot entirely on video and then transferred to 35mm for its theatrical release, and this edition honors the texturally varied rough smoothness that ideally results from such a cross-pollination of technology. Grain structure and color saturation are remarkably consistent considering that the film was produced on the fly with a variety of resources over a long period of time. Image clarity is exceptional (check those wonderfully detailed street-side vistas). Color contrast is striking and well-differentiated, and many subtle visual ticks and blips have been removed, even since the prior Criterion DVD. This image boasts a greater overall vitality than the image offered by the last edition, though it may not represent a dramatic enough improvement to justify a double-dip for price-conscious cinephiles. The new 4.0 surround soundtrack, however, remastered from the 35mm source that was used for the previous edition’s 2.0 track, is startlingly cleaner and more immersive, to the point that it might be the feature that compels someone to replace their prior DVD. Newcomers shouldn’t have any burden at all, as this is a beautiful presentation of a canonical film.
The two audio commentaries, one with the filmmakers, Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx, the other with the film’s subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, were both recorded for the initial Criterion DVD in 2005, and are both well worth preserving and porting over to this new edition. The filmmaking commentary offers a loose, unpretentious, yet dense discussion of the craftsmanship of Hoop Dreams, as well as the personal experience of working with Gates and Agee’s families so intimately over a five-year period. The filmmakers frequently wrestle with one of the great debates of documentary filmmaking: the extent to which they’re informing the story, and to which they should inform this story (an ambiguity that’s particularly troubling in the scene that shows Arthur’s mother wandering around her home when the power’s cut off). The filmmakers are aware of this irony, and never pretend to reach a resolution. Also discussed, at fascinating length, is the fashion in which images are layered with separately recorded audio, or are paired with one another for a thematic twinning effect (often comparing and contrasting William with Arthur) so as to create a documentary that moves unusually like a fiction film.
Gates and Agee’s commentary offers a sort of aural-only sequel to Hoop Dreams, and it’s eerie and enlightening to have a documentary’s subjects speaking over their film. They often fill in between the lines, telling us, for instance, that they remained friends throughout production despite the separate trajectories they follow in the finished form, because they simply hung out when shooting wasn’t taking place. Gates and Agee’s occasional evasion of the director also contextualizes many of the film’s out-of-nowhere turns, such as the unceremonious revelation that Gates had a child. This evasion is partially, and poignantly, explained as a desire to hide from audiences facts that Gates and Agee felt would conform to stereotypical notions of a black man in the projects.
This stereotype, incidentally, is shown to have been avoided in the short doc "Life After Hoop Dreams," which mixes footage of Gates and Agee in 2005 with interviews with the filmmakers from 2014 that provide even further updates. Rounding out this package is the collected footage of all the Siskel & Ebert episodes devoted to promoting the film (which was also included on the prior DVD), a music video directed by Gilbert promoting the theme song, trailers, additional scenes, and essays by author John Edgar Wideman and filmmaker and critic Robert Greene. One could carp and request a little more in the way of 2015-centric material, but this package is so rich as to render the sentiment churlish.
Hoop Dreams is a great American movie as well as a stealth document of a rigged social system, blending art and protest in a manner that recalls the writing of Charles Dickens and Richard Price. This Criterion Blu-ray may not be a game-changer for those who own the previous DVD, but it’s a gorgeous presentation in its own right.