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The Criterion Collection presents
"People say, 'When you make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' I feel like telling them, 'Well, if I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me.'"
DVD ReviewIf you're not a sports fan, you shouldn't let the name of this movie throw you off—it's an American epic, really, with a decided emphasis on the second word in the title over the first. Documentarians Frederick Marx, Steve James and Peter Gilbert originally conceived of this piece as a small portrait to be produced for public television; time and access allowed them to turn this from a short story into a sprawling saga, a portrait of two American families on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, looking for that classically American dream: better lives for their children, if not via the classroom, then by way of the hardwood.
Hoop Dreams follows two young African Americans, William Gates and Arthur Agee, about to enter high school, with dreams of playing in the NBA. The Gates family lives in the Cabrini Green housing project, one of the true blights of urban planning, ironically enough in the same neighborhood as the old Chicago Stadium, where Michael Jordan led his Bulls to glory; the Agees live nearby in the West Garfield neighborhood, where conditions are equally as unpromising. Both Arthur and William are certain that basketball will be their ticket out of the 'hood; the role model of choice is Isiah Thomas, who, like them, grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood, and then went on to win a national championship at Indiana University, then to a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career with the Detroit Pistons. (Now, Thomas is dismantling my Knicks. Thanks, Zeke.) In fact, both William and Arthur are being recruited by St. Joseph's, the suburban high school that Thomas attended; they even get to play a little one-on-one with Thomas, then at the apex of his pro career, who shows up at the school for an event for prospective students. The path from the projects to a Nike endorsement deal seems like an easy one.
Of course it isn't, as we all know—there are thousands of high school and college players, playground legends and other assorted might-have-beens for every NBA superstar. The numbers are brutal, and the prospects for those who haven't prepared themselves for anything other than a career playing pro hoops is bleak. Hoop Dreams gives us extraordinarily empathic portraits of these two families, whose members are shown with a dimensionality that isn't even hinted at in most fiction films. Arthur's father, Bo, for instance, does time in jail and has a devastating drug habit; Arthur's mother, Sheila, does her best looking after her family, when there isn't enough money to pay the bills. (Perhaps the most moving moment of the film is when Sheila graduates from nursing school; we share her joy and hope that this modest success is only one in a series of many for her and her family.) William is the more highly regarded player, which brings with it more treacherous territory; especially affecting is the portrait of William's older brother, Curtis, once the family basketball prodigy himself, now pudgy, barely able to hold down a lousy job as a security guard, embittered about the bad breaks that came his way, living out his own hoop fantasies through his little brother.
The filmmakers followed these two families over a period of years, and so we come to know them, and see how time transforms them—disillusionment and cynicism come early to William and Arthur, especially in their relationship with Gene Pingatore, the coach at St. Joseph's. (The Agees cannot afford the tuition, and Arthur has to leave and go to the local public school; William has a series of knee operations, and we get the sense that Pingatore thinks of him as no more than another disposable part.) The game footage conveys the flavor of high school athletics, and it's got the messiness that comes from real life, not from Hollywood; that is, when the guys we're rooting for are on the foul line in the final seconds with the game on the line, the free throws don't always go down simply because that's what's likely to appeal to audiences at test screenings. The benefit of time provides a new appreciation for some of what's going on here—for instance, William attends a Nike summer camp in which high school players parade before college coaches, in what feels uncomfortably like a slave auction; among the other players at the camp are Fab Five members Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose.
At close to three hours, the movie may seem a little long, but the running time allows it to develop an almost novelistic texture, with fascinating subplots, recurring characters, themes and variation; we see these young men change, we want them and their families to succeed, and we come to know that the odds in some instances against them are not just long, they're insurmountable. But there are triumphs, both large and small in Hoop Dreams, as there are in all of our lives, to go along with the dashed hopes and good intentions; it's a wonderful, insightful, respectful and heartbreaking movie, and it will speak to you even if you've never harbored fantasies about accepting that trophy from David Stern in the middle of a champagne shower.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The feature was shot on video, and a decade seems like generations ago; there's been some degrading of the image quality over the years, but it looks reasonably sharp and clear on this disc.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: There's some static, but that's what you'd expect given the circumstances of the shoot; it's all reasonably clear.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Steve James, Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert (track one); William Gates and Arthur Agee (track two)
Also on hand is a package of six pieces from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, two of the film's biggest champions. Unsurprisingly, in the first clip, they both give the picture a big thumbs up; in the second, they each choose this as the best film of 1994, and follow that up with a Memo to the Academy, plumping for a Best Picture nod. Hoop Dreams not only didn't get one—it wasn't even nominated for Best Documentary, and in the next piece Siskel and Ebert call out the documentary branch for this snub. The Academy reformed its nominating procedures, and this is the subject of the next piece; in the final clip, Ebert is joined by Martin Scorsese for a roundup of the best films of the 1990s (Siskel had, sadly, died, much too young, in 1999), and Ebert picks Hoop Dreams as his best film of the decade.
Two original trailers get at the marketing issues for New Line, who released the movie theatrically; one is pegged to the movie's success at Sundance, the other is intended to appeal to an African American audience. You'll also find a music video for the title song, which uses many clips from the feature. The accompanying booklet is full of riches, too—John Edgar Wideman writes about the emotional impact of the film; Alexander Wolff, a Sports Illustrated writer, considers it in the context of hoops recruiting; a Washington Post piece by Michael Wise updates us on what's happened in the ten years since the original release of the movie; and the filmmakers offer a moving dedication to Bo Agee and Curtis Gates.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsHoop Dreams isn't just a great documentary; it's an extraordinary social document, a look at the big aspirations and thin hopes of those at a tremendous economic disadvantage in what should be the land of opportunity. Criterion's treatment of the film on this DVD is respectful and informative—this really is as good a movie as you're ever going to see, and I could not recommend it more enthusiastically.
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