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