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Hoop Dreams
Director: Steve James
Features: William Gates, Arthur Agee, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur "Bo" Agee, Earl Smith, Gene Pingatore
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1994
Country: U.S.
Hoop Dreams Criterion Collection DVD
Hoop Dreams Hoop Dreams is an extraordinary documentary that tracks the lives of two inner-city Chicago kids as they try to make good on their dream to make it to the NBA. Shot over a five-year period (1986-1991) and expertly edited from the subsequent 250 hours of footage, Hoop Dreams unfolds like life itself, with unexpected ups and downs, joys and disappointments both small and large, and a sense of lived experience that only emerges from the screen when the filmmakers have truly and deeply enveloped themselves in the world of their subjects.

Interestingly, the film was originally intended to be little more than a 30-minute investigation of Chicago playground basketball culture, but once filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx got their videocameras rolling, they found themselves immersed in a subject so richly compelling that they ended up with a three-hour longitudinal epic. The film chronicles the lives of William Gates and James Agee, both of whom were 14-year-old high school freshmen when the filmmakers began following their lives. Both were naturally gifted athletes with a dream of making it in the world of professional basketball, and both came from the same dangerous, impoverished Cabrini-Green housing project in west Chicago. As the film begins, both William and James have been extended scholarships to attend St. Joseph's, a private, almost all-white Catholic school in suburban Chicago with a reputation for a strong basketball program (the fact that schools actively seek out and recruit kids as young as 14 is one the first of many eye-openers in the film).

William is the more naturally gifted of the two players; early on, he is touted as the next Isaiah Thomas, who also played at St. Joseph's as a teenager and whose accomplishments have been permanently enshrined there in a glass case. Because of his impressive abilities, William's scholarship is secure, whereas James' is not. In the first of the film's many twists and turns, James has to return to his neighborhood high school midway through his sophomore year because his parents cannot afford to pay the part of his tuition not covered by the scholarship.

William and James' fortunes and pitfalls interweave throughout the next four years, strikingly juxtaposed as one seems to be up while the other is down. Fate deals a cruel hand when William injures his knee, and James' seeming misfortune of having to return to his home high school turns out to be one of the best things that happened to him, as he truly comes into his own on the basketball team, shining in a way he might not have at St. Joseph's.

Yet, Hoop Dreams is not just about William and James. Rather, its scope encompasses their families, as well, both of which are portraits of low-income struggle. James' family is in constant turmoil, as his father, Arthur "Bo" Agee, leaves the family at one point and becomes addicted to crack cocaine. One of the film's most devastating images is Bo talking with his son on a neighborhood court, and then slipping away to buy crack from a couple of dealers hanging around the corner. Money, job security, and physical safety are issues that hang over their heads at all times, and part of the film's emotional and sociological power is the way in which it allows us to share in these peoples' lives during both the good and the bad. There is never a moment that feels exploitative or condescending, which reflects just how involved the filmmakers were and how much their subject trusted them. At the same time, the film takes a larger cultural view, as well, raising myriad questions about the realities of the American dream, the centrality of family life, and the crushing nature of a massively profitable athletic system that turns young men into commodities to be glorified unless their knees give out.

Hoop Dream runs for nearly three hours, but despite the running length, it never feels long. The smooth editing and naturally emerging, intersecting narratives keep it constantly intriguing. The film moves and builds steadily, drawing obvious excitement from the basketball games that are so central to the lives of the protagonists, pulling us into the drama of crucial foul shots and sudden comebacks and showing how such moments are but one part of the larger life experience. Basketball is omnipresent, but it's not everything. It informs the hopes and dreams of virtually every person on-screen, both directly and indirectly, but without detracting from other aspects of their lives, including their religious beliefs, familial values, and career aspirations.

Hoop Dreams is, in the best sense, a full portrait of a particular group of people at a particular point in their lives, and one of the best things you can say about it is that it fulfills you emotionally, but still leaves you wishing you knew more.

Hoop Dreams Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • Audio commentary by stars Arthur Agee and William Gates
  • Audio commentary by filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx
  • Segments from Siskel & Ebert tracking the film's acclaim
  • Original music video
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring a dedication to the Gates and Agee families written by the filmmakers; new essays by writer and cultural historian John Edgar Wideman and Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff; and Michael Wise's Washington Post article "Looking Back at Broken Dreams"
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateMay 10, 2005

    Hoop Dreams was shot entirely on analog video and edited on digital video, and for theatrical presentation it was transferred to 35mm film and reframed for a theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For the new direct video transfer on this DVD, the filmmakers decided to revert to the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in which the film was shot, rather than projected. Because it is entirely on video, the image has the expectedly sharp contrasts and colors that are inherent to the medium. There are no nicks, scratches, or dust since no film was involved in the transfer process. Overall, the image is a perfect representation of what it should look like.

    The two-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack is good throughout. Much of the film involves characters discussing their lives directly to the camera, but there is also a lot of everyday action such as basketball practices, school meetings, class time, and family gatherings that involve a good deal of ambient sound.

    This disc features two new audio commentaries, both of which were recorded in 2005. The first is by stars Arthur Agee and William Gates, who reflect on their experiences as depicted in the film and how they affected their lives. It's an intriguing commentary, one that is particularly engrossing immediately after you've seen the film as it gives you additional insight into what was happening in their lives and what has happened to them since then. The second commentary is by filmmakers Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx, and it is also excellent. It's a great primer on documentary filmmaking, and you get a real sense of how emotionally involved they were in the making of Hoop Dreams.

    As most know, despite the widespread acclaim heaped on the film and its impressive box office success (for many years, it was the most successful documentary ever), Hoop Dreams was unequivocally shafted at the 1995 Academy Awards. Criterion has assembled a series of segments from Siskel & Ebert that follow the critics' praise for the film when it was still playing film festivals to their outrage at its not even being nominated for Best Documentary, much less Best Film, by the Academy. The final segment is a 2000 show hosted by Ebert and Martin Scorsese (following Siskel's death) in which Ebert names Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s.

    Also included on the disc are an original music video and several theatrical trailers. The thick insert booklet contains a dedication to the Gates and Agee families written by the filmmakers; new essays by writer and cultural historian John Edgar Wideman and Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff; and Michael Wise's follow-up Washington Post article "Looking Back at Broken Dreams."

    Copyright ¬Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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