movie film review | chris tookey

Hoop Dreams

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  Hoop Dreams Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.00 /10

Directed by: Fred Marx, Steve James, Peter Gilbert
Written by: Frederick Marx, Steve James and Peter Gilbert

Released: 1995
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 174

The bad news is that this is yet another documentary about the plight of black youth in American inner cities.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The really bad news is that it is a three-hour movie about basketball. The good news is that this is, and I do not exaggerate, one of the great movies of all time. I defy anyone to sit through it and not feel enriched and altered by the experience.

Hoop Dreams shows us the American Dream in all its nightmarishness and splendour. It offers insights into sport, race, family and human aspiration. It is inspiring and unforgettable. Though it was not even nominated at the Oscars for Best Documentary, it deserved to be a shoo-in for Best Film. It is the antidote to Forrest Gump.

The unique project began in 1986, when three white basketball-fans from Chicago - Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert - started on what was intended to be a half-hour documentary for public service television. They began with only $2,500 in their pockets, and selected - with the aid of a school talent-scout - two black, 14 year-old basketball players from the ghetto.

One was Arthur Agee (pictured) - skinny, talented, but undisciplined. The other was William Gates - a muscular, more mature boy, tipped for the top by professional coaches.

Over the next five years and 250 hours of footage, an extraordinary story of the two youths and their families built up, spanning comedy and tragedy, disaster and triumph. Fate and family continually sprang surprises. Stereotypical situations had unexpected consequences. On the evidence of this film, God is one hell of a screenwriter.

The film-makers must not have been able to believe their luck, and have rightly asked critics not to say what happens. Suffice it to say that losers become winners, and vice versa. The film’s one tragic figure turns out to be William's older brother, Curtis, a former high school basketball star, growing ever more defeated, drab and dejected as his own dreams recede inexorably into the past.

The film’s most unfamiliar insight is into how early the recruiting of athletes begins in America. This has one welcome effect - white suburban schools help to give black children chances they might otherwise not have, of receiving a proper education. It is equally clear, however, that the schools drop them speedily and brutally, if they are no longer considered to be fulfilling their athletic potential. The children's educational needs and personal efforts - and their family's financial sacrifices - count for nothing.

The players, coaches and fans are all part of a highly competitive system which works in the best interests of a tiny minority, but cruelly ignores the needs of the vast majority.

It would be impossible to devise a more telling indictment of how white society uses and discards young black men. The film-makers have no need to preach; they simply show the difference between one boy - humiliated and dubbed a failure at 15, and having to study remedial English in a dark, crowded room - and the other, still with star potential and receiving treatment for a cartilage problem, free of charge, in a luxurious treatment centre. A fine documentary might have finished at the end of the first hour, with this downbeat but devastating conclusion.

The achievement of the film-makers - not to mention the young men and their families - is that they keep going. The story which unfolds over the final two hours contains as many emotional highs and lows as a novel by Charles Dickens. We witness games and other crucial events with hope, anxiety and even dread, for we know this is real life, which guarantees no happy endings, and we increasingly understand how far these children have to fall.

Hoop Dreams demonstrates the importance of family, the courage of mothers compelled to bring up children single-handed, and - on a much bleaker note - the defects of the grown men on display.

Most of all, it enables us to see how heavily the odds are stacked against these youths. One of the most moving moments comes at a simple birthday party, as one of the boys’ mothers weeps tears of pride and joy that he has managed to survive, unlike so many of his contemporaries, to the grand old age of 18.

By the end, we know what we didn’t understand before - that the boys’ dreams of becoming professional basketball-players may always have been delusions. Of the half a million children who play high-school ball, only 14,000 make a college team, and of those only 25 turn professional. But having a dream, however unachievable, has given these young men hope, and the spirit to improve themselves beyond any realistic expectation.

The growing involvement of the film-makers with their subjects gives the movie much of its strength; ironically, it may also have undermined its realism. One fact unrecorded in the film is that when Arthur’s family went through especially hard times and their electricity was cut off, the film-makers arranged for the bill to be paid and power restored. And the experience of being filmed may have given these two young men a greater determination not to fail publicly.

Still, I would not wish to detract from what is truly one of the great, inspirational movies of all time. Seeing it is an emotional experience which you should put yourself through. Set aside three hours of your life, and I promise it will leave you humbler and wiser.

"Their parents and teachers can tell these kids that education matters, but they can see what society values."
(Fred Marx)

"The kids, the coaches, the fans are all part of a system designed to create the most competitive teams. But that system isn't in the best interests of kids and their families."
(Steve James)

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