Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams
Director: Steve James
Starring: Arthur Agee, William Gates

I do not have the patience to be a documentary film maker.  Take Hoop Dreams, for example.  The filmmakers collected four plus years worth of footage, over 250 hours, and then had to craft it into a commercial length story.  To have an idea for a documentary story, then devote that amount of time to it without knowing how it will unfold?  I do NOT have the courage for that!

The film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates starting when both have just graduated from grammar school and are about to enter high school.  Both are aspiring basketball players from inner city Chicago, and both are recruited to play at prestigious prep school St. Joseph’s.  We go year by year with these two through high school, enduring trials and tribulations, playoff battles on the basketball court, financial difficulties, problems with home life, struggling to make grades, and making post-high school plans. 

I’ve seen Hoop Dreams twice now.  The first time was my freshman year in college when the college showed it for $1 in a lecture hall on campus.  I had heard of it so I went.  Frankly, I was bored.  The 171 minute running time was off-putting to me, and I felt too disconnected from Arthur and William.  I was 18 years old, a white female from an upper middle class background with absolutely zero interest in sports.  

I saw Hoop Dreams again today because it’s coming up as the movie of the week for my blog club.  But this time, I was seeing it not as a college freshman but as a high school teacher, with experience dealing with students of the same age as Arthur and William.  While I still come from the same place, I watched this film through the lens of an educator, and I had a profoundly different experience with it.  I was much more riveted than the first time around.  I felt for William and Arthur, I was willing them to succeed, to fight the odds, to get out of their situation.  This time around, I understood the hype that surrounded Hoop Dreams when it initially came out. 

Because Hoop Dreams is not a basketball movie.  Really, you could substitute the basketball angle of this with any other sport or hobby or passion that young people foster.  For me, an amateur musician, I read the same sort of attitude I harbored about the overwhelming odds against making it as a professional clarinetist in the behavior of Arthur and William.  For them it was basketball, for me it was the clarinet.  But what makes their story so much more intriguing than my own is that the stakes are much higher.  Succeed in basketball, that is their only option in life.  All other options are depressingly dead end. 

There’s a wonderful narrative structure to this documentary.  I know that’s the challenge for all documentary filmmakers, to create a clear story structure from real life events, but it really comes together well in Hoop Dreams.  Without giving anything away, we essentially follow the rise and sort of fall of one of the young men, and the initial fall and then rise of the other.  Just as you think you know exactly what will happen to both of these men – one who seems to be doing everything right, the other with a less-than-impressive attitude – things change for both of them.  The one who’s on top of it all faces adversities that he never fully recovers from, and the other finds a way to get it together late in the game.  The Arthurs and the Williams from the first half and second half are very different young men.  The rise and fall juxtaposition is interesting, and something I had completely forgotten about.  It was like I was watching the film for the first time all over again.

What really, really made me root for these two young men was their spirits.  Both of them, by the end of the film, have developed incredible wills to succeed.  I don’t mean wills to succeed in basketball, but wills to succeed in life.  Both of them clearly articulate that while they want to succeed on the court, they will NOT choose drugs or gangs or violence.  It’s incredibly poignant, and as an educator, it made my heart overflow with feelings of love.  I just wanted to take both of them and hug them so hard.  While their academic achievements weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, they at least had the presence of mind to avoid the pitfalls that actively bring down many of the people in their lives.  Arthur in particular has two people very close to him directly affected by drugs, and it only seems to make him more impassioned to avoid drugs.  I wish… I wish all of my students could hear him talk.  I wish all of my students felt that way.  Don’t get me wrong, I teach in an upper middle class suburban high school, nothing like the inner city schools Arthur and William attended, but we still have to deal with substance abuse problems. 

In my opinion, a large part of Arthur and William’s successful attitudes in the films stems from their very strong parental support.  Both have parents and families that support them and believe in them and make sure that they are staying on track academically as well as on the basketball court.  In one of the more touching moments in the film, Arthur’s mother completes her Nursing Program, graduating with the highest exam scores in her class, and watching her succeed and better her life clearly has an effect on Arthur’s vision of his future.  That’s something else that I wish I could give all of my students – strong family support. 

It was really eye opening for me to watch Hoop Dreams through the lens of an educator’s eye.  It reminded me that there is always so much more going on with my students than they show on the surface, and just how profoundly other events in their lives can affect what they bring to my classroom.  I know that was not the intent of the film, per se, but it’s what I took away from it.  I was constantly interested in what was happening to William and Arthur.  After watching it, I did some research to find out what happened to both young men, and was very happy to hear that both are leading successful lives.  Perhaps not lives of NBA-superstardom, as their eighth grade selves wished for, but successful lives nonetheless. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10


  1. I haven't read this post yet. I'm writing a review of Hoop Dreams in a few days, so I'll come back and catch up on this after that. (I did sneak a peek at your rating. Just fyi - mine's going to be higher.)

  2. Good review. I liked your take on it as an 18 year old vs. as an educator. The first time I saw it I was already old enough to know the importance of what they were trying to achieve.

    I just posted my review. Even though I didn't read yours first I still ended up using a music metaphor (piano vs. clarinet) and mentioning the scene with the mother getting the degree. The bit where they show the empty chairs was just a killer for me.

    1. Read your review too, and yeah, interesting that we both equated the basketball skill to any other sort of prodigy you could find.

      I really loved the bit with the mom getting her degree.

      Yeah, as an impatient teen, this film completely bypassed me. I'm really glad I saw it again though, I got so much more out of it this time through.