Judge Patrick Bromley came belatedly to this acclaimed documentary, but now he understands what all the fuss was about.
"People always say to me, 'When you make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' Well, I should have said back, 'If I don't make it to the NBA, don't you forget about me.'"—Arthur Agee
Steve James's 1994 documentary, hailed by film critic Roger Ebert as "the best film of the 1990s," comes to DVD for the first (and presumably last) time. Because it's being released by the Criterion Collection, we know it's going to be done right.
Facts of the Case
Hoop Dreams was planned as a thirty-minute documentary about the African American experience as it relates to the sport of basketball. As part of this documentary (which was meant to be sold to PBS), the filmmakers—Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert—intended to include a profile of a young Chicago boy who showed great promise at the sport. One boy became two: 14-year old William Gates and 14-year old Arthur Agee, who both demonstrated such skill at basketball that they were recruited by an upper-class suburban high school, St. Joseph's—the alma mater of former All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Slowly, a new film began to come into focus as the boys' lives took new directions and new "twists" introduced themselves. Ultimately, Hoop Dreams follows the boys from their freshman year of high school through their freshman year of college, spanning nearly five years and chronicling all of their triumphs and defeats both on the court and off.
The summer movie season is more than halfway over now, and each week I seem to grow more and more restless. Blockbuster after blockbuster, film after film, I find myself starved for content. For drama. For the kind of human connection that, at their best, films can give us. I've found it in a handful of films—a majority of them being documentaries like Rize and Mad Hot Ballroom (and yes, I do recognize that looking for substance in the summer movie season conjures up some needle/haystack imagery, but it seems more and more that "summer" is creeping its way across the entire calendar). Perhaps it's because documentaries are able to strip away the artifice (most of it, anyway) that we call "spectacle" and examine real people with real concerns. People who find real joy in doing what they love. People who struggle and who (hopefully) overcome. People whose ordinary lives are far more involving than anything concocted by millions of dollars in CGI effects and endless rewrites. People like you and me. It's in watching these films and opening ourselves up to the lives contained within them and we, in some small way, become better people.
That's Hoop Dreams, a movie I hadn't seen prior to watching it for the purposes of this review. Sure, I was aware of it through the writings and ravings of my hometown hero, Roger Ebert. And the wife has been a fan for years, too—she shows it in her Film Studies course, and every so often will read a random item and update me on the lives of the two boys the movie depicts. Those kinds of articles didn't use to mean anything to me; seeing the film, I can now say that they will. The boys have become a part of me. Heck, the boys are me. This film isn't about basketball; it's about growing up with the singular passion to be a part of something that you love. For me, it was monster movies (which eventually gave way to movies in general, accompanied by the knowledge that I had to be involved with them in some way). I would gobble up books on Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and watch the old black-and-white frights on the local horror show, Son of Svengoolie, with the same wide-eyed gaze that Arthur Agee and William Gates watch the All-Star game.
And yet there's an obvious difference, too. My childhood passion required only spectatorship (the advancement of knowledge came from my own decision to pursue the movies further). It didn't demand hard work, or discipline, or practice. Basketball does, and we see it from the moment we meet Arthur and William. Yes, there is pressure on them from outside sources (William from his older brother, Curtis; Arthur from his father), but nothing compared to the pressure the boys put on themselves—they're going to make it in the NBA, no matter what. There's a drive there that exceeds the simple dreams of adolescent boys. Basketball is more than a fantasy for William and Arthur; for better or worse, it begins to define them.
But, as I said, Hoop Dreams isn't about basketball. The sport provides the framework for director Steve James's larger story—the love of something and the total devotion of one's life to its pursuit. Yet I find that even that description is limiting, as Hoop Dreams is about so much more. It's about race and class—particularly the lower-class, African American inner-city experience in the 1990s. Now, 11 years later, you might not see this as groundbreaking; we have, after all, been inundated with such imagery through music, television, and film. And yet I've never seen it examined this thoughtfully, this sensitively, this directly. James doesn't attempt to sentimentalize his subjects, and it's in that way that the film gains its resonance—it's a straightforward and honest look at the experience of these two families, and the way that basketball factors in (sometimes providing new opportunity, other times used as a tool of manipulation and crass opportunism—listen closely to Spike Lee's comments during his cameo). It's a movie of triumphs both big and small, and of tragedies that are the same. The scene in which Arthur's father wanders off the court to buy drugs—while both the camera crew and Arthur look on—is just as heartbreaking, if not more, than anything I've seen in movies.
The Criterion Collection's disc of Hoop Dreams is yet another of their wonderful efforts, giving the transcendent movie the treatment it deserves. It's presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio, and despite having been shot on video—and not the more modern digital video format, which can often look just as good as film—the image looks excellent (even better when you see how it could have looked on the Siskel & Ebert segments in the supplemental section). The only available audio option is a standard stereo track, but it suits the movie just fine—the dialogue/narration is always audible, and the occasional basketball crowd fills out the living room nicely.
While there isn't an enormous amount of extras on the disc, the ones that are present truly demonstrate the "quality over quantity" approach that many studios don't seem to grasp. Even something as simple as the movie's original theatrical trailer is used for maximum impact; we get two vastly different versions of it, demonstrating the way that Fine Line (the studio originally responsible for distributing the film) attempted to position the movie for multiple audiences. This brief feature—disposable on just about any other disc—demonstrates both Fine Line's attempt to adopt the Miramax brand of marketing savvy, and the degree to which they pushed the film to as wide an audience as possible. People wanted Hoop Dreams to succeed.
For further proof of this, Criterion has included a series of segments from Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel's television series, appropriately titled Siskel & Ebert. The segments track the progress of Hoop Dreams from its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, through its theatrical release and eventual Academy Award snubbing, and finally to the end of the decade as Ebert (accompanied by director Martin Scorsese, filling in for the already-passed Siskel) declares the film his favorite of the past ten years. The collection of pieces not only underlines the kind of support the movie received by America's foremost film critics—both were rather instrumental in bringing attention to the movie—but also reaffirms the power and vitality of film criticism (good film criticism, that is, not the kind of quote whoring that so often passes for it these days).
Rounding out the bonus features on the disc is a pair of commentary tracks. The first track is delivered by the filmmakers: Peter Gilbert (producer and director of photography), Frederick Marx (producer), and Steve James (producer-director). It's an excellent commentary, filled with information about the production's history and other information; the filmmakers all come across as intelligent, articulate, and passionate—the kind of passion that only a movie like Hoop Dreams could have been made with. The second commentary track, though, is the real coup: It reunites the movie's stars/subjects William Gates and Arthur Agee 11 years after its release. The track is great in the way that the best DVD supplements are—it essentially extends the enjoyment and experience of the film, allowing us to spend more time with the boys and get to know them further. It also provides a rare opportunity for two documentary subjects to discuss the experience and impact of having their lives play out on film. It's a great listen.
In trying to write this review, I've realized that it's difficult for me to talk about Hoop Dreams, the way it can be difficult to talk about anything that one has a strong emotional response to. I can admire its technical accomplishments and construction—it is, after all, beautifully crafted and executed—but my reactions are primarily emotional, and I'm left a bit lost for words. Hoop Dreams moved me in a way that few films do. I'm not sure I need to say much else.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx
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