Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

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