2015 Blind Spot Series: Hoop Dreams (1994)

Premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. The film was ranked #1 on the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries list. Its exclusion from the Best Documentary category at the 1995 Academy Awards led to a restructuring of how the category was evaluated. Many felt Hoop Dreams was unfairly snubbed.

Originally intended by filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx to be a 30-minute short. The filmmakers followed the children back to their homes, and after several years, and with over 250 hours of raw footage, a 30-minute PBS special turned into a three-hour feature film.

The documentary follows two African-American high school students in Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, during their high-school years, and their dream of becoming professional basketball players. We are given a sense of the world they live in.

I wouldn’t go so far and call it the best film of the 90s as Roger Ebert does, but still a highly watchable documentary. Despite not being a fan of basketball, and despite its lengthy three hour running time, the film kept me involved throughout.

A coach reckons Arthur has the talent, but not the confidence. It’s not enough to have the ability to play basketball, equally important is the tuition fees, which Agee’s family are not able to fulfill.

The only minor flaw for me is the filmmakers gloss over William Gates’ injury in the last act, as if he no longer had this physical problem.

It’s a documentary not just about basketball, because the goal is also to explore issues of race, class, and education in modern America. The expectations placed on talents from such an early age is quite frightening and revealing. You could substitute the basketball angle of this with any other sport or passion that young people foster. It’s really about daily life amid urban poverty, people’s dreams and struggles.

I don’t know if the documentary helped instigate change and make it easier for underprivileged kids to have a career as an athlete. The pressure put on them to perform comes from both sides, family and coaches, there are financial implications where the schools are given bonuses for winning. In some ways the kids are being used, even though they want to play.

A recent guardian article covered where the main figures are now, reading the piece feels a bit like what Michael Apted is doing with the Up series. Both William Gates and Arthur Agee were able to turn the film’s success and their subsequent fame into a better life for themselves and their families, so some positives came of their participation. However the families have also faced adversity, which the article spotlights as well.

As Will Di Novi wrote in his article Game Changer, Hoop Dreams was a film that took the temperature of American culture in the 1990s, while also, in its own way, redefining it, demonstrating the economic potential of documentary filmmaking to distributors. The success has affected filmmakers around the world. Hoop Dreams was one of the first feature-length films shot entirely on video, establishing a new, cost-effective blueprint for the production of non-fiction cinema.

What I will take away from watching Hoop Dreams is the sheer joy on the faces of family members, applauding during the matches. It’s really a film about family. As another reviewer wrote, Hoop Dreams seems to encompass not just a few individuals’ stories, but draw archetypes out of them to personify the larger world around them.

Rating 8.5/10

Thanks for reading! Agree or disagree? Have you seen Hoop Dreams? As always, comments are welcome

18 thoughts on “2015 Blind Spot Series: Hoop Dreams (1994)

  1. For me this clearly the best movie ever made about sports and about basketball, in particular. You brought up the reasons why. It's really a wide-ranging socio-economic study on film, but complete with a soul of its own. Im not so sure it's the best movie of the 90s, but it's on my short list. Fyi, a couple years ago the football doc “Undefeated” tread similar ground and is excellent in its own right. Highly recommended viewing even if you're not a fan of that sport. Great review!

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  2. I consider this no less than the greatest documentary I have ever seen, and I've seen quite a few.

    I agree that it's about far more than just basketball. Two killer scenes for me are when one of the kids watches as his father buys drugs, and when the mother of one of them earns her diploma, is hugely excited about it…and then the camera pulls away and we see that there is not a single person in the audience there for her to share and appreciate it.

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  3. @Chip Lary: Those are powerful moments you highlighted. In terms of the Agee family, they experienced some highs and lows, with the drug-taking father dying years later in 2004 in a robbery. The mother Sheila Agee worked as a private nurse with well to-do families after earning her degree in 1994. (from the guardian article I linked to)

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  4. @thevoid99: Of the many feature length docs out there, Hoop Dreams is definitely one you should seek out.
    Yep, the academy do tend to overlook films each and every year, and this was a snub

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  5. What's really stuck with me about Hoop Dreams is how universal it feels to aspirations beyond basketball. It's about guys who are trying to use their talent to make a better life for them and family, but the odds are so slim that it could happen. I've become quite a fan of Steve James after seeing Hoop Dreams. The Interrupters is so good, and you can't go wrong with Life Itself too. I'm glad you caught with it!

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  6. @Dan Heaton: I agree Hoop Dreams does work on a universal level about aspirations and wanting a better life for the families, the odds are slim. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of pressure.
    I plan to see Life Itself soon, heard good things. The Interrupters sounds interesting too.

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  7. I need to see this one. I've wanted to for a few years, since I'm now far more interested in docs (it's taken a while), but this one has eluded me so far. I'm have to amend that. Great review!

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  8. Great Blindspot pick Chris. Somehow I thought this was a feature film, not a doc. I really should include a doc on my next year Blindspot, great review!

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