by Ken B.
It’s funny how one thing leads to another. Hoop Dreams, one of the most fascinating and commendable movies I’ve seen this year was supposed to be a half-hour special on PBS about inner-city kids playing basketball on playground courts. The project kept building and building, and the final result was a 171 minute sprawling feature about the hopes of two of those kids in becoming professional players. This is far more entertaining than most fiction-based movies, and because it is about actual human life, far more rewarding.
The kids are William Gates and Arthur Agee. They live in Chicago. They love basketball. They watch it on TV, they play it with their friends, and the latter pastime helps them when they are spotted by a talent scout and enrolled into St. Joseph High School. Now, the kids who said themselves that they eat, sleep, and breathe basketball are exposed to a far more demanding part of the sport, which they must balance with their schoolwork. There are injuries, re-injuries, bad grades, domestic problems, and more (at one point, the electricity in the Agee household is cut). But there is always that first dream, now matter how elusive it may be.
This really is a great movie. Normally I’d ask why it wasn’t even nominated for Best Documentary at the 1995 Academy Awards, but the answer to that was revealed at the time in a very controversial and publicized incident (don’t have time to explain, you people have Wikipedia).
Shot on video with a 1.33 aspect ratio, the movie feels a little ragged at times on a purely visual basis, but this is to be expected. Over 250 hours of footage were shot over five years (the film is divided into sections over their years in high school), and it was a fair way to store and shoot off-the-cuff. Maybe this unprofessional factor was involved in the quick rejection from AMPAS (see Wikipedia article). It’s a shame such an impressive documentary had to look so unimpressive up front. The film does clock in at just under three hours, and there are some pacing-related problems cropping up here and there, but none so large that they are distracting to the flow of the film in general. It is still masterfully edited, so what must have been piles of mostly inconsequential footage can form a coherent and gripping story.
Hoop Dreams emphasizes the human experience – it’s an encapsulation of our equal struggle to achieve our hopes and dreams, sometimes with others, sometimes by ourselves. It is an encapsulation of balancing those dreams with the practical now. It is an encapsulation of determination. It is an encapsulation of realization. In the filmmaking process, Hoop Dreams is also an encapsulation of all of those things in the years that went by during its making, and the miracle of cinema that emerged.