Director: Steve James
Production: Kartemquin Films/KCTA-TV; color, 35mm (blown-up from 16mm); running time: 169 minutes. Released 1994. Filmed in and around Chicago, Illinois, and at the University of Illinois between 1986 and 1991.
Producers: Frederick Marx, Steve James, and Peter Gilbert; photography: Peter Gilbert; editors: Frederick Marx, Steve James, and Bill Haugse; sound: Adam Singer and Tom Yore; music: Ben Sidran.
Cast: William Gates; Arthur Agee; Emma Gates; Curtis Gates; Willie Gates; Sheila Agee; Arthur "Bo" Agee; Tomika Agee; Joe "Sweetie" Agee; Earl Smith; Gene Pingatore; Isiah Thomas; Dick Vitale; Bobby Knight; Kevin O'Neill; Joey Meyer; Spike Lee; Bo Ellis.
Awards: Best Documentary, Sundance Film Festival; Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Critics Association; Best Documentary, New York Film Critics Circle; Best Documentary, Boston Society of Film Critics; Best Documentary, Texas Film Critics Awards; Best Documentary, National Board of Review; Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics; Golden Globe Award, Best Documentary.
Joravsky, Ben, Hoop Dreams: A True Story of Hardship and Triumph, Atlanta, 1995, 1996.
Pierson, John, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, New York, 1995.
Seigel, Jessica, "Hoop Dreams Rises to the Top at Sundance," in Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1994.
Ebert, Roger, in Chicago Sun-Times, 13 February 1994.
Collin, Glenn, in the New York Times, 21 February 1994.
Zwecker, Bill, in Chicago Sun-Times, 15 July 1994.
Christiansen, Richard, in Chicago Tribune, 17 July 1994.
Zwecker, Bill, in Chicago Sun-Times, 16 September 1994.
Wilmington, Michael, "When Film Dreams Come True," in Chicago Tribune, 2 October 1994.
Poe, Janita, "High School Calls a Foul, Sues Over Basketball Film," in Chicago Tribune, 6 October 1994.
Berkow, Ira, "Dreaming Hoop Dreams," in the New York Times, 9 October 1994.
McGavin, Patrick Z., "From the Streets and the Gyms to the Courtrooms and Beyond," in the New York Times, 9 October 1994.
Kornheiser, Tony, "Living a Dream and Dreaming to Live," in the Washington Post, 3 November 1994.
Howe, Desson, in the Washington Post, 13 November 1994.
Will, George, "Salvation Through Basketball," in the Washington Post, 24 November 1994.
Dretzka, Gary, "Hoop Dreams Shooting for Best-Picture Oscar," in Chicago Tribune, 10 December 1994.
Cox, Dan, "Fine Line Has Dreams of Best Pic," in Variety (New York), 2 January 1995.
"Acad Rebounds After Hoop Airball," in Variety (New York), 20 February, 1995.
Corliss, Richard, "How the Winner Lost," in Time (New York), 27 February 1995.
Angell, Roger, "Two Dreams: One Gets Oscar's Nod, One Gets Gumped," in The New Yorker, 13 March 1995.
Spillane, Margaret, "Slam-dunked," in The Nation (New York), 13 March 1995.
Ansen, David, "Why Did Oscar Drop the Ball on Hoop Dreams?" in Newsweek (New York), 27 March 1995.
Diamos, Jason, "Hoop Dream Shot Clock is Slowly Ticking Away," in the New York Times, 27 March 1995.
Diamos, Jason, "A New Chapter in the Gates Story," in the New York Times, 29 March 1995.
"Dream of Conquest," in Sight and Sound (London), April 1995.
Marvel, M., in Interview (New York), April 1995.
Arthur, Paul and Janet Cutler, "On the Rebound: Hoop Dreams and its Discontents," in Cineaste (New York), Summer 1995.
Short review, in Séquences (Haute-Ville), no. 177, March-April 1995.
Gower, Mike, "Hoop Fantasies," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 5, no. 7, July 1995.
Sperber, Murray, and Lee Jones, "Hollywood Dreams: Hoop Realities," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), no. 40, March 1996.
Terry, Cliff, "Kartemquin: a Different Kind of Dream Factory," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 77, no. 4, April 1996.
* * *
Hoop Dreams is a richly human and profoundly American film. It is at once an allegory about striving to achieve, and the politics and pressures of achievement; and a story of the anguish of poverty in urban America and an indictment of the meat market aspect of contemporary scholastic and professional athletics. While the film is a documentary, there is as much drama and suspense as any deftly plotted fiction. The difference is that the emotions and lives unfolding on screen are real.
The film opens with the NBA All-Star game being played in Chicago. Just a few miles beyond the fanfare, two boys are coming of age in rough urban neighborhoods. Both watch the game on television, almost in awe, while nurturing aspirations for stardom as professional basketball players. Both dream of one-way tickets out of the ghetto, complete with new houses and spiffy cars.
William Gates and Arthur Agee have honed their athletic skills on the neighborhood playgrounds. William is seen practicing slam-dunks in a park, by a bare brick building: a world away from the glare of a Madison Square Garden or an Orlando Arena. Both teens are recruited to play basketball at St. Joseph, a suburban Catholic high school. Years earlier, former Detroit Pistons hoop star Isiah Thomas (who also appears in the film) graduated from St. Joseph. The film now asks the question: "If Isiah can become not only a professional athlete but a perennial All-Star and certain Hall of Famer, why not William and Arthur?"
As William's career at St. Joseph progresses, the media compares him to Isiah, while Gene Pingatore, the school's basketball coach, sees within Arthur the potential to become a "great player." Later on, the image of Arthur shooting hoops in a playground garbed in a red basketball uniform with the name "Thomas" stitched on the back speaks volumes about his dream. Being accepted at St. Joseph, however, is the initial step of a lengthy, arduous process. Arthur and William will have to acclimate themselves to a school outside their neighborhood, in an interracial climate. Each day, they must endure a three-hour commute to and from school. Once there, they will have to succeed academically as well as athletically.
Hoop Dreams is an up-close-and-personal look at five years in the lives of William and Arthur. It opens with their enrollment at St. Joseph, and concludes with their heading off to college. In between are the traumas and victories they experience on and off the basketball court, and the answering of questions which are posed as the boys begin attending St. Joseph: How will William and Arthur relate to the school, and how will the school and the drill sergeant-like coach relate to them? How will their athletic skills develop? How will their lives and perspectives change over the years? How will all this impact on their relatives? Arthur's dad, Bo, is a failed athlete who feels he "could have made the pros," and does not want his son to experience the "bad things" he has known in his life. William's older brother Curtis is another ex-jock who lives through his sibling while observing that "all my basketball dreams are gone."
With keen insight, the film reflects on the value system of contemporary American society. Their basketball prowess certainly affords Arthur and William an opportunity for education, and self-improvement, in an academic environment far superior to their neighborhood high school. When William begins his freshman year at St. Joseph, his reading skills are at the fourth grade level but, by the time he is a sophomore, his reading level has gone up several grades. The film raises several societal questions here, including: "What about all the ghetto kids who do not have William's physical aptitude?" and "How many kids will never have their ability tapped because they are unable to slam a ball through a hoop?" Furthermore, Arthur and William are attending St. Joseph not out of altruism. Are they being exploited for their talents? Are they perceived as being little more than bodies, who will help a team win a championship? If they were to fail on the court, or suffer a potentially career-ending injury, will they be discarded? Arthur is only on a partial scholarship and is booted out of school because his parents cannot keep up tuition payments, then loses all academic credit. St. Joseph refuses to release his transcript until his family pays $1800 in back tuition. The welfare of the teenager becomes secondary to the collecting of a bill from a family where the breadwinner is a minimum wage-earner.
In telling the story of William, Arthur, and their respective families, Hoop Dreams serves to reaffirm the humanity of black males. Bo Agee sadly fits a negative stereotype of the African-American man as an irresponsible, violent, drug-abusing loser. At one point, he even abandons his family and is later seen pushing drugs in the playground where his son plays basketball. Bo's fall continues when he becomes a crack addict, beats his wife, is arrested for battery, and spends seven months in jail for burglary. While his behavior is not condoned in the film, it is clear that he is unable to adequately support his family on a minimum wage and is tragically weakened by his loss of self-esteem.
Despite the specifics of its setting and subject, Hoop Dreams is a film with universal meaning. Arthur is eventually enrolled in a Chicago high school, and leads his unranked team to the city championship. He and his teammates then travel downstate, to play for the state title. In one sequence, Arthur's parents are seen walking across the University of Illinois campus, where the game will be played. One of them notes that "a child" should have the experience of attending such a school. This idle observation expresses every dream that every parent has ever had for any child.
But what resonates long after seeing Hoop Dreams is an unavoidable fact of contemporary American life. For every Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, or Isiah Thomas, there are thousands of young men like Arthur Agee and William Gates: young hoop dreamers who are forged in the ghetto, and who never will earn all of the glory and affluence they so desperately crave.