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Hoop Dreams: the Struggle and the Triumph

November 10, 2009

Hoop Dreams (1994) is more than a story. It observes, dissects, and records the life of two teenagers in inner-city Chicago, Arthur Agee and William Gates, with such breadth and depth that it becomes a microscopic examination of human lives. Yes, the teenagers are African-American. Yes, the place is in a particular kind of neighbourhood with a particular kind of demographic. Yes, the times is late 80s and early 90s. Yes, the topic is that of basketball. But those are just details written on the back sleeve of a DVD. It may as well be any other time, place, and race. The struggles in life are universal themes and they speak across boundaries. Perhaps that’s why so many people are so moved by Hoop Dreams. They see life unfolding, and they inevitably see part of themselves in the unfolding of the struggle. It reminds them that they are not alone. Great movies do that. They transport us, remind us that we are not alone in our struggle, and let us know that our lives are worth living.

Hoop Dreams is about poverty.

The Agee family suffers when Sheila, its provider, suffers chronic back pain and loses her minimum wage job. They go on welfare and somehow has to survive on $268 per month. A family of four, with three growing children. They lose their gas and electricity. A camp lantern acts as a bare glimmer of hope in the darkness.

Hoop Dreams is about domestic abuse.

Arthur’s mom has been married to his dad for twenty years, and he beats her. She had to get an order of protection to keep him away at times. On camera, he seems like a nice man, means well for his kids and family. Arthur’s best friend, Shannon, tells the camera that his father is the same. “It’s hard on a kid.” He summarizes.

Hoop Dreams is about drugs.

Far in the corner on the playground where Arthur and his friends play basketball daily, drugs are bought and sold. Arthur’s father visits one day, and attempts a jump shot with his son, but there is no doubt of the real purpose of his visit. He disappears behind a slab of concrete wall, shirtless, a crumpled bill in hand. Arthur watches. Later on, his best friend, Shannon, wanders down a similar path.

Hoop Dreams is about talents.

William and Arthur are both talented. Basketball comes naturally to them. St. Joseph’s, a suburban high school, recruits them for their talents. When Arthur is late in hitting a growth spurt and does not seem to be rising to the basketball player expected in the first year, St. Joseph’s drops him.

Hoop Dreams is about money.

William stayed at St. Joseph’s as a promising basketball player. His tuition is covered by a good Samaritan. The same Samaritan did not exist for Arthur. After he was asked to leave St. Joseph’s in the middle of a school year, the school refused to release his transcripts until $1300 in back tuition is paid. This is a family that survives on $268 per month.

Hoop Dreams is about having a dream.

William has a dream. Arthur has a dream. Their brothers, fathers, mothers, have a dream. They dream of rising above the circumstances that they were born into.

Hoop Dreams is about the dashing of one’s dreams.

Curtis, William’s older brother, was a talented basketball player. He was recruited to a good college, but had a reputation for being unteachable. He didn’t get along with the coach and hardly played. “Curtis’s idea of being real good is you don’t follow the rules, you do what you wanna do.” His mom said. Curtis stopped playing basketball.

Hoop Dreams is about living your dreams through others when you could not yourself.

“He didn’t make it. I just want this one to make it.” William’s mom said, waiting at the hospital while William undergoes knee surgery. “All my dreams are on him now,” Curtis told us. “I want him to make it so bad I don’t know what to do.” Desperation mixed with hope, both visible in their voices.

Hoop Dreams is about bearing the burden of not only your own dreams, but those around you.

William wanted so bad to surge ahead, but his knee did not feel the same. The coaches, his brother, his mother, his extended family, they all want him to surge ahead, but his knee did not feel the same. It’s heartbreaking to see this 16-year-old kid struggle with what’s the best course of action: to respect his physical injury, or to risk permanent damage by pushing ahead? Everyone is watching. They all want him to only play if he feels ok to play, of course. But ok for whom? How is a kid suppose to make that kind of decision? We all know what they hoped the answer would be. When William re-injures himself, everyone is upset – he shouldn’t have been out there if he didn’t feel ok!

“It’s like my injury was making him look bad,” William said. “I always felt that Curtis should not be living his dreams through me.”

Hoop Dreams is about sinking to a low that you could not have imagined.

“Sometimes I sit around and my eyes just kind of get watery because I’m like, I ain’t amount to nothing. You know, I ain’t got nothing. I can’t even go out and get a job making $7 an hour, you know.” Curtis lost his job as a security guard and has been unemployed for four months. He sits on the side of a fence, no longer the physique of an athlete, a cigarette in his hand, shoulders slumped with defeat. “I been sitting there telling myself, you ain’t gonna be better.”

Hoop Dreams is about rising to a high that you didn’t know you could.

“When I went out there [St. Joseph’s], I was very intimidated because I just knew that everybody out there was just smarter than I am.” William said. “But as the year went on, and I was making  A and B honor roll, I thought hey, I’m just as good as them.”

Hoop Dreams is about the struggle, and the triumph. There would be no triumph without the precipitating struggle. A struggle would be meaningless without a triumph to look forward to. You see, we struggle the hardest when there is a purpose, a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how unattainable that may be…it is necessary to our survival. Basketball was that light to Arthur and William, because it was the brightest light that was known to them. Many before them in similar circumstances have followed it successfully to triumph over the shackles of poverty and drugs. They believed that they could too. But hoop dreams weren’t the only dreams being pursued and realized here. There are many stories. Each inspiring. Arthur’s father overcomes his drug habits. Arthur’s mother, Sheila, quietly pulls her family together in unimaginable circumstances, never once faltering. Through it all she manages to graduate as a nurse’s assistant with the top grade in her class.

Above all, Hoop Dreams is about family. Arthur and William are lucky. Their families stood by them through it all. They may not be perfect, but they were there. Without them I’m not sure if Arthur and William would’ve made it through at all.

In the end, both Arthur and William reached their hoop dreams in their own way. Neither of them ended up in the NBA. But through basketball, they were both able to go to a good college and get the education needed to start the rest of their lives. Basketball got them an education. Basketball got them off the streets. Basketball lifted their spirits up when all else were gloomy. Basketball was their light, and they followed it out of darkness. It started with basketball, but it did not end there, and that is important.

Some call this the best film of the 1990s. The Great American Documentary. I think it carries a special significance for those who are American, and particularly for those who lived in Chicago. But regardless of your nationality, the themes are universal: the struggle and the triumph, the pride and the insecurity, the hope and the desperation, and the love…love of family, love of friends, love of your team, love of pursuing one’s dream. That transcends. If your eyes are open, you can’t miss it.

Roger Ebert: The great American documentary

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 11:29 PM

    I admire the ease and flow and the constant experimentation in your writing. This is one of the best–having seen the film, I find this a beautiful coverage, in terms of comprehensiveness and clarity, of a film I did not find an easy watch.

    Grace: For me, each film dictates the writing, rather than the reverse. I often don’t find myself having much control over it…like in this case, I started writing chronologically and actually couldn’t proceed. The film is way too broad and complex for that.

    Sounds like you have some writing to do yourself. Thoughts to share?

    • November 11, 2009 10:36 AM

      It’s interesting and informative about the way things work. If cinema is a kind of voyeurism ( as Hitchcock said ), this is one step ahead, real life observed in slow motion over years, even though it is real life played out with the consciousness of the movie camera, which is an important character in the story.

      Any way that it’s another notch in Roger Ebert’s top 100 (I should be around the 50th percentile).

  2. November 11, 2009 1:09 AM

    More than even Ebert’s review (and post), this review of Hoop Dreams gets to the heart of this movie, clearly laying out the different strands that intermingle and make this such a great film (so kudos to you!). People who shy away from this movie because it’s a “sports movie” should read your review. I doubt many of them would continue to avoid seeing this film once they’ve done so.

    Your dissection of the film also has done something amazing; it has revealed everything that makes this movie great, without spoiling the surprises in store for the audience. I am not going to spoil those surprises, either, but will say that I cheered in parts. I cried in parts. And when the movie was over, all 171 minutes of it, I wanted to see it again. And again. And again.

    Greatest American documentary? Greatest film of the 1990s? I wouldn’t argue with anyone who held either belief. Certainly one of the best films I’ve seen, in any year.

    Grace: To think it’s a mere sports movie would be taking the easy way out.

  3. November 12, 2009 6:09 PM

    I agree. Saying Hoop Dreams is a mere sports move is like saying that Don Quixote is a mere adventure novel.

    Also, since you mentioned that the movie you review dictates the writing style you use (as it should), did you know that the great composer Robert Schumann said something similar, a hundred and more odd years ago? It is that characteristic–where the subject dictates the form, rather than the form dictating the subject–than separates the classical world from the romantic. It makes me wish that I had my Lives of the Great Composers book in front of me, rather than stuffed in a box in the attic of my home in Connecticut, so that I could quote it for you, for while there are many wonderful Schumann quotes online, I have yet to find that one.

    Grace: I adore Schumann! For exactly those reasons you mentioned:
    “Robert Schumann was a composer firmly of the Romantic period, often adopting a free “poetic” style for his works. They have a structure and logic, yet represent an expressive “stream of consciousness” rather than being bound by Classical views of form.”

  4. November 12, 2009 7:58 PM

    Not to get too off-topic here, but Schumann was also a great (music) critic. :-) Though, with your literary flourishes, perhaps you are more akin to Hector Berlioz, another composer whose ideas (and music) I adore (man, this thread reminds me that I need to buy more Schumann and Berlioz music).

    Grace: that’s very kind of you to say, but I’m afraid I can’t accept it. These are two of the Greats.

  5. November 12, 2009 10:43 PM

    Well, I am only going by what Harold Schonberg (himself no slouch of a critic) wrote in his book The Lives of the Great Composers concerning these two as critics, and their review styles. He also had some excerpts from Schumann’s critiques, but not from Berlioz. But you are right, I am being premature here in comparing you to them, since Schumann’s first critique was of Chopin (“Hats off, gentlemen! A genius.”) and his last was of an equally important romantic composer whose name escapes me. In between, the only major figure he did not care for was Wagner, but then again, he died before Wagner wrote Lohengrin, never mind the Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal. Berlioz had an equally brilliant career as a music critic. Were I to get my hands on a book of their criticisms…

    So, let me make a prediction, instead: a hundred years from now, people will be comparing film critics to you, which is the third and final stage of critical acclaim. The first two are comparisons to others (as in William Gates being compared to Isiah Thomas in Hoop Dreams) and comparisons to oneself (e.g. “Johnson’s third novel is not as good as his first two”). Until then, I shall only point out how much I enjoy reading your musings, instead of comparing you to giants in criticism. Deal?

    Grace: Thank you.

  6. November 13, 2009 1:21 AM

    I really have to see this one. I have it sitting in my instant play on Netflix, I just have to find a time where I can sit down for three hours and watch it. This is a great write-up nevertheless and makes me want to see it all the more. I love how Ebert always links to your blog on Twitter! That’s got to be a pretty good feeling to have a guy like that reading your blog.

    Grace: it gives me the warm fuzzies…every time :)

  7. November 13, 2009 1:21 AM

    Best movie of 1994. Documentaries should get consideration for the Best Picture Academy Award, same as any other genre. Silly Oscar rules.

    Grace: I agree.

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