FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: HOOP DREAMS; Dreaming The Dreams, Realizing The Realities (Published 1994) – The New York Times

Daily update

Supported by
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

AT a high point in his young career, Arthur Agee, a 14-year-old basketball player at St. Joseph High School in Chicago, stands on the court with his idol, Isiah Thomas. The N.B.A. star is visiting his old school, and as Arthur goes one-on-one with his hero, the boy flashes a smile as big and joyous as any you've ever seen.
Four years later, Arthur's classmate William Gates, who also dreams obsessively about playing in the National Basketball Association, has progressed to the Nike All-America basketball camp, where college coaches look over high school players. Spike Lee visits and tells the students a cold-blooded truth: they are being used and the one way to protect themselves is to know it. "The only reason you are here is because you can make their schools win and they can make a lot of money," Mr. Lee says of the coaches. "This whole thing is about money." It is the kind of valuable advice boys like Arthur and William, from poor black neighborhoods, hear all too rarely.
"Hoop Dreams" is a brilliantly revealing documentary that follows Arthur and William through high school to their first year of college. Along the way it raises many potent questions, none more difficult than this: How can you encourage the kinds of dreams that transform Arthur's face while keeping harsh reality in sight?
The film makers, Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, spent four and a half years with the boys and their families, acquiring 250 hours of film. Their fascinating, suspenseful film turns the endless revision of the American dream into high drama. The story begins when Arthur and William are actively recruited by St. Joseph, a mainly white, Roman Catholic school with a major basketball program. Just as the boys' paths seem settled — William is heading for a dazzling college career and pro prospects, while Arthur is spiraling downward — they face abrupt changes. "Hoop Dreams" is the profound social tale of these two emblematic boys, who are sucked into a system ready to toss them aside, disillusioned and uneducated, the minute they stumble on the basketball court.
"Hoop Dreams" will close the New York Film Festival on Sunday night at 8, the first documentary ever to do so. (It will open in New York next Friday and around the country on Oct. 21.) It is a daring choice for the prestigious closing-night slot because the movie, though finely made, is not about bravura film making. Instead, "Hoop Dreams" affirms the role of film as a medium for exploring social issues. And like any important documentary, this one raises crucial questions beyond what is on screen. How does the camera change the subjects' behavior? How well can the film makers, who are white, see beyond the stereotypes of poor black kids and their broken families?
Though it tries, "Hoop Dreams" doesn't find the complex people behind the stereotypes often enough; as viewers, we remain sympathetic voyeurs rather than intimates. The film's great achievement is to reveal the relentless way in which coaches and recruiters refuse to see Arthur and William as anything other than social cliches.
Arthur lives in the Cabrini-Green housing project with his parents and siblings. In the course of the film, Arthur's parents break up and get together again, and his father overcomes a crack addiction after serving time in prison. William lives with his single mother and older brother in a slightly better neighborhood. Both families are too dream-besotted themselves to offer good advice.
William's older brother, Curtis, failed in his own college basketball career and has invested his dreams in his brother. Arthur's father also missed out on a college career, and says of his son with a confidence that is eerily short-sighted, "I don't even think about him not making it."
St. Joseph seems the way to a pro career. Both boys are given partial scholarships, though they read at a fourth-grade level. Gene Pingatore, the head coach, who never lets the boys forget that he launched Isiah Thomas, is the distillation of all the white coaches and recruiters in the film. He talks a good game about caring for the boys' future, but over and over the film captures his hideously callous behavior. The strongest proof is what happens to Arthur.
Arthur doesn't shine in sports or academics. "I've just never been around a lot of white people, but I can adjust," he says. When he starts behaving badly in class, Coach Pingatore tells the camera Arthur is reverting to the influence of "his environment." Arthur is tossed out of St. Joseph in the middle of his sophomore year because his family owes $1,500 in back tuition.
Two years later, when Arthur needs his freshman transcript to graduate from the local public school, St. Joseph's holds the records hostage until the Agees arrange to make monthly payments on the back tuition. In a brutal documentary moment, St. Joseph's finance director condescends to Mr. and Mrs. Agee, who act amazingly grateful for the chance to pay the old debt. The subjects could not have guessed what a painful impression they would all make.
William has financial problems, too. But he has raised his reading level and done well on the varsity team. St. Joseph's finds a private sponsor to take care of his share of the tuition.
Primed for success, William becomes the more articulate and vibrant of the two, with Arthur seeming guarded and shy. Then William injures his knee, and the camera closes in on his impassive face as the doctor says he might have to sit out a year. It's hard to guess how much of his stoicism is an act for the audience.
Arthur's mother becomes the warmest and fullest character, because she is the only one we see looking past the camera and talking to the person behind it. After celebrating Arthur's 18th birthday, she learns he has been cut off welfare, even though he is still a full-time student. "Do you all wonder sometime how am I living?" she asks, clearly talking to a person and not posterity. In all those hours of film, there were certainly other, unused moments when the barrier of the camera was broken down, but Sheila Agee must have done that a lot. She encourages her son, wears a Detroit Pistons sweatshirt and triumphantly passes a course to become a nurse's assistant. Yet she is plainly furious at St. Joseph's for what she considers the broken promises that let her son down and temporarily shattered his self-confidence.
In shaping "Hoop Dreams" into a dramatic 2-hour-and-51-minute narrative, the film makers do an expert job of demonstrating the pressures and excitement surrounding the boys. Both have crowds cheering as they take last-minute shots in do-or-die games that might lead to the state championship.
By his junior year, William is getting dozens of letters from big-time basketball schools like Georgetown. One letter offers the lure, "We play on national television." Yet his grades have fallen so much he might be ineligible to play in college; he has fathered a child. He later recalls that when he went to Coach Pingatore for help dealing with his family, he was told, "Write them off."
Arthur, who has grown taller and wears a stylish fade haircut, has regained some confidence. But he has had a few weak seasons and hears from places like Mineral Area Junior College in Missouri. When he visits there, he finds they have no dorms. They do have an isolated house for the basketball team; six of the school's seven black students live there.
What is most disturbing about "Hoop Dreams" is that no one seems willing or equipped to help William and Arthur navigate between their dreams and reality. When William says wearily toward the end of the film, "Basketball is my ticket out of the ghetto," it sounds as if he is parroting a phrase that has been drilled into him, as if an alien has taken over his mind.
The story behind "Hoop Dreams" is not over, either. The TNT cable channel is planning to remake the story as a fictional movie for television. A book based on transcripts from the interviews will be released in the spring. Meanwhile, William and Arthur are now college seniors, William at Marquette University and Arthur at Arkansas State.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has ruled, despite the film makers' appeals, that neither the boys nor their families may receive any money from the sale of the film because they would lose their amateur status and their scholarships. And just last week, St. Joseph High School filed a civil suit for defamation against the film makers and the distributor, Fine Line Features.
Depite all the drama on and off screen, a particularly quiet moment best captures the life lesson of "Hoop Dreams" and is the scene most likely to have audiences cheering. William, about to graduate from St. Joseph, tells Coach Pingatore of his college plans. "I'm going into communications," he says, "so when you come asking for donations, I'll know the right way to turn you down."
"Hoop Dreams" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes some graphic scenes of knee surgery.
HOOP DREAMS Directed by Steve James; director of photography, Peter Gilbert; edited by Frederick Marx, Steve James and Bill Haugse; music by Ben Sidran; produced by Mr. Marx, Mr. James and Mr. Gilbert; released by Fine Line Features. At Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday at 8 P.M. as part of the 32d New York Film Festival. Running time: 171 minutes. This film is rated PG-13. WITH: Steve James, William Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates, Sheila Agee and Gene Pingatore.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *