Sunday, February 21, 2016

Watch This: Hoop Dreams

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Hoop Dreams (1994)
Co-written, co-produced, co-edited, and directed by Steve James

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.  We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment ... But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.  The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.  The new needs friends."
                                                                                              - Anton Ego, Ratatouille (2007)

The late Roger Ebert was inarguably the most popular film critic of the past half century.  His reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times and on his various syndicated television programs (in particular At the Movies, which he co-hosted with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel), as well as in his many books, brought film criticism into the mainstream in the United States, appealing to general audiences in a way that no other film critic's work had before.  Despite his impact on the world of film criticism, his most lasting legacy may have been his championing of new talent, bringing widespread attention to little-known independent films and helping to launch the careers of filmmakers like Ava DuVernay (2014's Selma), Ramin Bahrani (last year's 99 Homes), Justin Lin (the Fast & Furious franchise and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond), Patty Jenkins (2003's Monster and next year's Wonder Woman), and the Ross brothers (whose documentary 45365 won them a 2010 Independent Spirit Award sponsored by Ebert and his wife, Chaz).  Ebert was even one of the handful of major American critics to give a positive review to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which has since been heralded as an influential classic.  However, no other filmmaker may owe as much to Ebert as Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was highlighted by Ebert on At the Movies even before it premiered at that year's Sundance Film Festival.  Ebert named it the best film of 1994 on his annual top ten list, and Hoop Dreams has since garnered a reputation as one of the best documentary films ever made.  James himself would go on to direct numerous acclaimed non-fiction and narrative films, including the moving, reverent 2014 documentary about Roger Ebert, Life Itself.

Hoop Dreams documents five years in the lives of two African-American high school students from inner-city Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they follow their dreams of becoming professional basketball players.  Both Gates and Agee were recruited by the coaches from St. Joseph's, the private, suburban high school with a perennial powerhouse basketball program that produced NBA legend Isiah Thomas.  The two boys were offered scholarships to cover most of the tuition, and we see them making the 90-minute commute to and from the school each day.  Gates shines immediately, starting on the varsity squad as a freshman and quickly improving from his initial fourth-grade reading level.  Agee, in contrast, struggles both athletically and academically, and when he is dropped from the squad, he loses his scholarship and enrolls at Marshall, a public school in Chicago.  As their high school years progress, we see somewhat of a reversal of fortune.  Gates is plagued by injuries, while Agee develops into a star at Marshall, leading his team to the state finals in his senior year.  Nevertheless, Gates is offered a four-year scholarship to play in the Division I program at Marquette University.  Agee, due to his poor grades, goes to a junior college in Missouri, where he hopes his grades will be good enough for him to transfer to a four-year school with a strong basketball program.

While the struggles of Gates and Agee on and off the court are fraught with drama, the story is made even more remarkable due to the great attention the filmmakers give to the boys' home lives.  Their immediate and extended families provide them with support in a variety of ways, and their mothers in particular are shown to have a devotion and fortitude that is truly inspiring.  Agee's mother, for example, is abandoned by her husband and loses her job, forcing her family to live on a few hundred dollars a month in welfare aid.  Their gas and electricity are turned off in the winter.  Nonetheless, she remains resourceful and encouraging, and even manages to graduate from a nursing assistant program with the best grades in her class.  There is also the sad story of Gates's older brother, Curtis, a former high school and playground standout whose once-promising career petered out before he could finish college.  It is difficult not to see the parallels between Curtis and his injury-stricken younger brother, and you hope that William's prospects will turn out better.

Steve James and his colleagues, co-writer/producer Frederick Marx and cinematographer/co-producer Peter Gilbert, initially conceived the film as a 30-minute documentary about Chicago streetball, focusing on a single playground court and its teenage players.  How fortuitous that they happened to discover Gates and Agee, whose teenage lives would provide the opportunity to tell a much broader story, a sprawling, three-hour examination of life in urban America that encompasses economics, race, social class, and education.  The financial and emotional hardships faced by Agee, Gates, and their families offer a revealing glimpse of the everyday struggles of America's marginalized populations.  Agee, for example, is unable to graduate from Marshall without transfer credits from St. Joseph's, but St. Joseph's will not release his transcripts until Agee's family pays the $1,300 in back tuition, money he would not owe to begin with had the school's recruiters not plucked him out of the city with regard only for his basketball skills.  For Agee and kids like him, the opportunity for a better education exists only as long as they can contribute on the court.  William Gates's remarks in the film's final scene are sadly emblematic: "When somebody say, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me,' and all that stuff, I should say to them, 'Well, if I don't make it, watch you don't forget about me'."

The legacy of Hoop Dreams has even extended beyond the film itself.  Hoop Dreams failed to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, an oversight that brought so much backlash against the Academy that the flawed documentary nomination process was subsequently revised.  The snub remains one of the most egregious in Academy Awards history, although recent years' nominations have certainly revealed that the problem still persists, in particular for minority filmmakers and performers.  Ebert himself was one of the strongest voices calling out the Academy for its glaring mistake, and as James's glowing tribute Life Itself attests, Ebert's support is never forgotten.

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