Though invaluable as a sociocultural survey of the American dream, Steve James’s epic documentary Hoop Dreams is somewhat worthless as a basketball movie. The film is vital for its deeply humane depiction of marginalized youths’ desires to become basketball stars, but the game itself primarily serves as a thematic backdrop. That’s not the case with Doin’ It in the Park, a documentary directed by Kevin Couliau and Bobbito Garcia that explores the history of New York’s outdoor summer basketball scene and its impact not only of the professional game, but sports culture as a whole.
The film does an exceptional job of illustrating street basketball’s value as a cultural movement, one that crosses boundaries of class, gender, race, and skill level. The one defining prerequisite seems to be nothing more than a desire to play—and play hard. Via voiceover narration, Garcia, a legendary street ball player himself, describes New York City’s almost mythic pickup basketball scene, made up of parks spread across all five boroughs and featuring players who’ve assumed the level of cultural icons. Charismatic and eloquent, Garcia narrates the material with an exuberance that’s invigorating, so that even the film’s more trivial stretches, such as an oddly prolonged explanation of basketball’s origins, seem vital to the overall story.
As an anthropologic investigation, the sheer wealth of information expounded by Couliau and Garcia is impressive. The film leaves no stone unturned: Each park and neighborhood has its own unwritten set of rules, customs, and ethics—everything from dress code, slang, style of play, hierarchies, and nicknames. But while Couliau and Garcia do their best to traverse the material and maintain a relatively brisk pace, the information tends to run together. A sense of structure evades Doin’ It in the Park, which meanders from scene to scene without direction. The same basic sentiment, that basketball as we know it wouldn’t exist without the influence of New York street culture, is repeated ad nauseam and to increasingly diminished returns.
Aesthetically, Doin’ It in the Park is standard documentary fare: talking heads interspersed with archival footage and modern-day sequences. But the interviewees, comprised mostly of old-school ball players like Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland and Ed “Kid Sundance” Davis, speak with such reverence and wistfulness that any uninventive stylization is easy to forgive. In truth, the film is never as strong as when an on camera subject details some facet of pickup basketball culture with the kind of authority seemingly reserved for historians and academics. Their knowledge and insights are what make Doin’ It in the Park perhaps the first important film about street hoops, even if the overall product struggles from a lack of focus.