When it comes to film-making, there is no more remarkable place to find a compelling story committed to celluloid than in the documentary form. Fictional movies can tell great stories, but with a definite sense of control over what we see. A documentary on the other hand finds the drama in real life and if done well can be more captivating than any other kind of movie out there. Documentaries can tell all kinds of stories; funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even devastating. And the reason why so many stay with us is because through following real people and showing real places, documentaries reveal to us an element of truth that other cinema can’t. Sure, documentaries also have the power to manipulate, and not all for the better (just look at the political propaganda pieces from firebrand filmmakers like Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza). But, what I’ve always found fascinating about the documentary form when it’s at it’s best is the way that film-making finds great drama in the unexpected and hidden parts of life. There’s something about the presence of a camera that brings out things you never expected and with a precise editing job, you can find a narrative that you never realized was there before. I’m sure no one thought a competition between two rival Donkey Kong enthusiasts would turn into a David vs. Goliath battle of wits like the one we saw in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) or that an in-depth interview with a Government Intelligence officer would turn into an international incident and a pivotal turning point in America’s surveillance policy as it happened in CitizenFour (2014). That’s the magical power of documentary film-making, and it’s important place in cinematic history is well reflected by some of the inclusions in the Criterion Collection.
Criterion includes many influential and important documentaries within it’s library. Some of the more notable inclusions are the works of the Mayles Brothers, Albert and David, whose Gimmie Shelter (1970, Spine #99) documented the legendary Altamont concert set up by the Rolling Stones where an attendee was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels biker gang that were used as security, a moment caught on the Mayles’ own camera. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentation of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1968, #167) also captured the introductions of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the world. In an all-together different documentary style, Criterion also includes the controversial anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1974, #156) and the equally unflinching Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, #334) which documented the often-times violent tension seen in a coal mining community during a year long strike. Many other acclaimed documentarians have also been highlighted by the Collection, including notable filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Louis Malle, and even Orson Welles (in his later independent years). But, if there’s something that the Criterion brand is especially great at, it is putting the spotlight on films that are especially deserving of more recognition, and that’s exactly what they did to one of the late 20th century’s most monumental documentary features. It’s an epic story about hardship, family, and the dissection of the American dream, and it centers amazingly enough around the sport of Basketball. So, with March Madness going on right now, I felt it was appropriate to highlight the documentary wonder that is Hoop Dreams (1994, #289).
Hoop Dreams is epic in both size and story, and the fact that it came to be that way was unexpected to everyone, including the filmmakers. When director Steven James and producer Peter Gilbert began their project of documenting the lives of inner-city kids trying to pursue a career as professional basketball players, they only expected it to end up as a 30 minute special that would air on PBS. Five years and 250 hours of footage later, they ended up with an amazingly complex story that ended up filling 3 hours of run time. The film documents the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two boys from poor housing projects in Chicago. It starts with them as high school freshmen, both with aspirations of becoming star athletes in the NBA. They get recruited into the same prestigious high school that their idol Isiah Thomas attended, St. Joseph’s, but academic difficulty causes Arthur Agee to fall behind and he ultimately is dropped out of school and from the team. Afterwards, Agee returns to the projects to attend his local, state run school while Gates remains at St. Joe’s, barely clinging on academically and always under pressure to perform as the only black kid in a predominately white institution. As the boys grow older, we see them deal with the harsh reality of what it’s like to pursue a dream and ultimately fall short. Agee deals with behavioral problems in school, a drug-abusing father who causes economic woes for his family, and a lack of humility that ultimately isolates him from teammates and friends. Gates on the other hand falls victim to high standards that ultimately put a strain on his health, due to long commutes to school and grueling hours of practice, that ultimately leads to injuries and a loss of respect among teammates. By their senior years, the two boys mature into more seasoned and intuitive athletes and as they ultimately reach some of their goals and make the transition into college, they take a look back and examine if the dream of NBA fame is ultimately what they want in the end.
The brilliance of Hoop Dreams is the way that it captures so many different themes within the central narrative. Yes, it’s ultimately about pursuing dreams and reaching for goals, but it touches upon so much more than that. The film was made during the late-80’s and up through the early 90’s, a period of social and cultural upheaval for many people, especially those in poorer, racially segregated communities. In Hoop Dreams, you see Agee and Gates deal with racial, class and economic division, the ongoing threat of gang violence and drug abuse in their homes, huge disparity in educational standards based on where they live, and just all around bad luck thrown in their way. For both of the boys, basketball is more than just a game; it’s a way out. What also occurred during this era of gang and drug proliferation in the inner cities was the rise of Sports culture as a whole. Both ESPN and NIKE came into their own during the 1980’s and with them the rise of the marketing of Super Sports All-Stars. It was the era of “Bo Knows Best” and “Wanna Be Like Mike” and larger than life figures who dominated their sports like no one before. At the time for many African-American youths in America, sports figures were the only role models around for them to look up to, and that in turn made many inner-city black kids believe that their only ticket out of their poor communities was through athletics. Unfortunately, the world of athletics is a far more competitive one than the media at the time would have led us to believe, and many young men fell short of their dreams with nothing to fall back on. This reality is ultimately what’s at the center of Hoop Dreams and it’s that realization of dreams versus reality that both Agee and Gates come to as they evolve from boys to men that ultimately resonates when you watch the film.
Not that it’s all that makes this movie great. Steven James remarkably is able to create this whole tapestry of the society that these kids exist within, and makes everything around them an integral part of their growth as people. One great subplot in the story is Arthur Agee’s mother Sheila making her way through nursing school before ultimately receiving her certification by the film’s end. Her struggle to break out of her situation and make something of herself is a nice parallel to the struggle of her son and it’s a bright point that gives hope to everyone involved about what their futures might be. The movie also works perfectly as a sports film, with the games that the two boys compete in playing crucial significance to the growth of their character. When they ultimately play in the state championship tourney by their senior years, you really feel the weight of what has led up to this moment. By the end, you see that both boys had talent that could have taken them far, but life and society put up different paths for them to take, and whether or not they took them it would determine what kind of person they would be. It’s a grandiose story of universal truths found in a small corner of American society that rarely gets seen and that’s what makes Hoop Dreams so memorable. When it premiered at Sundance in 1994, it was immediately praised by the critical community. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in particular championed this film relentlessly on their nationally syndicated program, hoping to give the movie the due attention that it deserved. Amazingly, the film was overlooked by the Oscars, and it exposed some of the unfair nomination processes that the Academy had; in particular, the Documentary category at the time was not voted on by other Documentary filmmakers. The Hoop Dreams snub forced the Academy to change it’s voting practices, and that in itself was a positive change for the better thanks to this movie.
Criterion once again delivers a worthy presentation of a film deserving of a special edition. Documentaries are an interesting class of film compared to their Hollywood counterparts, in that there is a more relaxed standard of picture quality that they are judged by. For most documentarians, their only option of film stock is lower quality, grainy 16mm, or in some cases the even more low-grade 8mm. But, the strength of a documentary is not how polished it looks but rather what it captures on screen, and therefore documentaries can get away with having a shabbier appearance. Hoop Dreams has even more of a handicap in the visual department because it was shot on video tape as opposed to film. This gives the movie a mostly home video look which may put off some viewers more used to a more film like experience. But, despite the limitations of the source, Criterion has done it’s best to make the high definition picture of this movie look as good as it possibly can be on blu-ray. The results come out looking great and live up to the high Criterion standards. The high-definition transfer was made in collaboration with the Sundance Film Institute, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Academy Film Archive, so you know that this movie went through a lot of restorations in order to get it to it’s highest quality possible. With approval from director Steve James , this is about the best possible picture we’ll ever get for this film. The sound quality is also perfectly balanced given, the limitations of the source. Overall, it’s a prime example of how to give a documentary the proper preservation it needs.
Criterion has also supplied a wealthy set of bonus features that also enrich the experience. The most substantial feature in the set is a documentary called Life after Hoop Dreams, which gives us a much needed update of where Arthur Agee and William Gates are today. Both men, now in their forties, never did make it into the NBA, but as the documentary shows, their lives haven’t fallen apart as their dreams of fame faded away. Both of them, as we learn, finished college and earned a degree, and they’ve in turn used their skills to give back to their communities, as coaches, entrepreneurs, and even as a pastor in William Gates’ case. Watching these once troubled youths turn into well adjusted adults in the wake of this movie is a very pleasing turnout and makes it’s inclusion here very worthwhile. There’s also an engaging commentary track from the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to listen to them discuss the process of documentary film-making based on their experience with this project, especially in how their small, simple special evolved into this giant undertaking. Another interesting feature is a collection of excerpts from the Siskel & Ebert show, tracking the critical reception of the movie. The advocacy for the film by the two famed critics is recognized by many as one of the elements that helped to popularize the movie across the nation, and these excerpts are a way of acknowledging their help. Ebert in fact named Hoop Dreams as the Top Film of the 1990’s, and director Steve James would pay back the kindness many years later by spotlighting the life and career of Roger Ebert in the also acclaimed documentary Life Itself (2014). Rounding out the features is a music video tie-in as well as a theatrical trailer. Overall, it’s a solid presentation with some very worthwhile features that compliment the movie perfectly.
Hoop Dreams may seem like a hard sell at first glance. A 3 hour documentary about inner-city kids who want to play professional basketball? But, when you do finally give it a look, you will find an engrossing, multi-layered drama that will keep you interested the whole way through. What ultimately makes this movie so fascinating are the kids themselves. We see Arthur Agee and William Gates grow and mature and learn what the American dream is really like. The movie also teaches us a lesson about the all too common barriers we set up in society with regards to what a person can achieve based on their race, their class, or their level of education. The movie also allows us to see that fame and glory are not without cost and hardship. In a world that values super stars, we don’t see enough of the sometimes ugly ladder that people end up climbing in order to get there, and Hoop Dreams is just one reflection of how so many who seek a way to the top often never make it. More over than that, the movie just overall represents a high point of documentary film-making, and the often amazing way it can capture the unexpected drama of human life. The late great Albert Mayles once said, “The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality,” and Hoop Dreams is a perfect illustration of that notion. The filmmakers never set out to capture this amazing, grandiose story, but as the years went by and more and more interesting things happened in front of them as they continued to roll film, they ended up with a story that was better than anything they could’ve imagined. That’s the power of documentary film-making; the ability to capture life’s crucial moments unexpectedly. You can’t do that with purposely staged events and rarely with talking head interviews. Hoop Dreams is life unfolding in front of our eyes and that is the most epic kind of story that can ever be shown on the screen; and plus, it’s got some great basketball in it too.