Hoop Dreams is a documentary that has been admired for all of the wrong reasons. It does so many things right that I am curious why people tend to focus on what it ultimately does wrong. Oh, the film has been praised. Many proclaimed it the best film of 1994. It was not, of course, but definitely was among the best documentaries and belongs in the top ten of the year. But the people in the film continue to ask for sympathy that is clearly not warranted. I will get to that later.
The documentary actually has a fairly simple set up. The film follows two young boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee. They dream of nothing but going to the NBA. At the start of the film, they get their chance. St. Joes, a private Chicago school where NBA star Isiah Thomas got his start, offers both boys an opportunity to go to their school. William does and stays at the school for four years. Arthur does not and tries to make it up at a public school. Both boys have to face numerous challenges but never give up on their dream.
Ah yes, Agee and Gates. They are the reason that this film was going to succeed. For one of them, it tells their story beautifully. For the other-well….no. No it does not.
First, a tiny point-the best documentaries are the documentaries with no narration at all. The Maysles recognized this-their images carry their films more than their voices possibly could. The directors of Hoop Dreams are far too chatty-the narration doesn’t add anything. It doesn’t really detract, however, and more just becomes and inconvenience than an annoyance. Still, the story is much better told through the words of Agee and Gates.
I found myself truly admiring the dedication of William Gates. He is a man who is given a once in a lifetime opportunity. He works hard, he progresses in his academics. Of course there are challenges in his life. He faces a massive knee injury that benches him and he has trouble getting the minimum ACT score needed for a college scholarship. Along the way, he is given much support from his brother and his mother. His brother in particular has high hopes for him. Curtis Gates had been a basketball player that had, unfortunately, lost the dream and was working as a security guard during the movie (tragically, Curtis Gates was murdered in 2001). Their dynamic was the emotional core of the film. William even gets a job to help pay for some of his expenses, but still offers some of the money he earns to his mother. I empathized with William. The footage of his basketball are some of the most exciting filmed, simply because the filmmakers have set up Gates in such a way that any other reaction is impossible. And yes, there are difficulties. During these times, we are watching a man working as hard as he can to make his dreams come true. Gates was the perfect subject for the documentary. I wonder, in fact, what Agee was truly offering to the film.
There, I said it and I will say it again-Arthur Agee does nothing to add to the narrative of the documentary. He is a kid who squanders his opportunities and expects sympathy. His appearances in classrooms are abysmal-he cannot answer a single question, and merely offers a grin or some pathetic attempt (according to him, ‘yoy’ is Spanish for yes). One scene that has been criticized endlessly (to the point of invoking the word ‘Dickensian’) involves a scene in which St. Joe’s refuses to release Arthur’s transcripts because the parents have not paid their back tuition. Many proclaimed the school should have done so. Why? They recruited him to play basketball and make good grades. He did neither. Let me put it this way: if you fail to do a job assigned to you at work and have your pay reduced, is that some sort of injustice? No. You were being paid to do a job that you failed to do. Agee himself does not even look at his own actions. He curses St. Joe’s for expelling him (“They messed everything up-shouldn’t even went there”) and laughs and snickers when teachers attempt to encourage him to work harder. Yes, Arthur does have some tragic circumstances. His mother loses her job, they have to go on welfare and end up having their power cut off. Arthur’s father is a crack addict who is physically abusive to his wife. It would have been incredible, despite these odds, to see Arthur overcome. But he doesn’t really. Oh sure, he joins the Marshall team and does very well. But he still curses St Joe’s and never takes responsibility for what he has done. It is frustrating that the film expects me to express sympathy with him.
I see the filmmaker’s point-at the time (and even today) there were many problems plaguing the black community that were not going to be resolved overnight. It would have been an interesting experiment in duality-show a success and a failure and then explain why both happened. William may be the success (although neither made it into the NBA, this should not be a measure of failure-there are many talented players who do not make it to the professional leagues) so Agee may have very well been the failure. But it is because of his own problems rather than society at large. The film does not address these themes at all.
This is a film dedicated in its point of view: society is to blame for the problems for the failure of the American Dream. The problem is that the film cannot decide whether it is about the problems still facing the black community, or about the men who are trying to make their dreams come true? Oh, the film could have been about both and done both well. Too bad it only accomplishes half of its task.