Review: Hoop Dreams (1994)

hoop dreams

When dreams come true, or when life gets in the way and they crash and burn!

Written By: Steve James & Frederick Marx
Directed By: Steve James

I have a troubled history with Hoop Dreams. I watched the movie for the first time around 1997-1998, when I was a junior at St. Joseph’s High School. Needless to say, as a teenager who was a student at the school featured in the documentary, I came away hating Hoop Dreams with a passion. It’s bias and misrepresentation of facts and events troubled me greatly. Since that first viewing I have watched Hoop Dreams a few more times, and with each viewing my appreciation of the film does grow, but purely on a technical level. My dislike of the bias and misrepresentation never went away, if anything it increased as I grew older and become better informed about some of the matters Hoop Dreams tackled. After recently being floored by the brilliant filmmaking of No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson, another documentary by Steve James, I told myself that at some point in the future I would watch Hoop Dreams  with as fresh of eyes as possible.

I did appreciate Hoop Dreams more during this viewing, but I still have far too many gripes with the film to ever love Mr. James’ film. A lot of the problems I have always had with Hoop Dreams are still present, and as someone who is a few shades older I actually developed some new problems with Hoop Dreams. That’s not to say that Hoop Dreams is a terrible film. It is at times too biased, it is overly long, and it does misrepresent one side of the story of the film in a few different ways. However, the technical side of the film is well done, and the drama of the two kids and their families is more often than not engaging and endearing.

The biggest problem I had with Hoop Dreams this time around was the focus on the basketball games being played. As a youngster this element of the film never bothered me, but as an adult I don’t see the need to spend so much time presenting the equivalent of box scores time and time again. The story of Hoop Dreams isn’t about basketball, it’s about the journey of two kids who happen to play basketball. The film loses track in its narrative and loses a lot of momentum whenever it reverts to being a SportsCenter update on that year’s state playoffs. A few moments spent with the games played by the kids each year would have been fine, but Mr. James spends way too much time on the games themselves. Hoop Dreams is far too long, and that’s because of all the wasted time spent on games that don’t mean as much to the narrative as Mr. James thinks.

The other problem, and this has always been a problem for me, was in the way the film represented St. Joseph’s, and in particular Gene Pingatore. From the start the film paints him, and St. Joe’s, as the villain of the documentary. It presents plenty of arguments from William Gates, Arthur Agee, and their families as to why Mr. Pingatore and St. Joe’s are evil. Never at any point does the film present these questions to Mr. Pingatore or the school of St. Joe’s. They engaged in question and answer segments with representatives of John Marshall High School, as an example, but the man, and the school, that Mr. James decided was the villain of his film was not afforded the chance to respond to his, and the school’s, vilification. Yes, I do know Mr. Pingatore, and I did go to St. Joe’s, but I would have believed the points put forth against Mr. Pingatore and St. Joe’s by the film if the film had bothered to ever broach those subjects with Mr. Pingatore or the school.

Another area that troubled me this time out was a small selection of moments near the end where we see Arthur and William interact. They even go so far as to declare that they love each other in one moment. Where did that moment come from, what relationship was the basis for that embrace? They were never shown by the film to have a relationship prior to that embrace, nor did the film bother going through the process of presenting the two young men as having understood that they shared a similar experience. It was a manipulated documentary moment of, “Let’s get our two stars together and have them share a moment, that will make for great heartfelt drama!” For me, it wasn’t great heartfelt drama, but an example of the very worst that documentary filmmaking can bring to the table.

That sure was a lot of negative, but I do have some positive things to say about Hoop Dreams. It is an engaging film, with interesting and compelling characters. The journey that the two main kids go on is the type of one that is almost impossible to not engage with. Steve James and company do a splendid job of getting into the heads of William and Arthur. Their lives, hopes, dreams, and fears are explored in a way that is as full of depth as it is intrigue. Mr. James is not at his best in Hoop Dreams, but his camera does manage to capture some genuine moments of drama, love, outrage, and life occurring in the ways that only life can occur. The framing of the film, and the way that Mr. James camera engages all of his subjects is truly the work of a great documentarian.

I still don’t love Hoop Dreams, as should be evident by the fact that yet again I had more negative than positive things to say. In lieu of love I have grown to respect Hoop Dreams and the story it has to tell. I wish it didn’t come across so biased and one sided, and it shouldn’t have wasted so much time recapping the basketball games. Still, Hoop Dreams tells a story of compelling individuals and families, and follows them for a long enough time that by the end I really cared about what happened to them. Because of that I was still able to enjoy Hoop Dreams, massive flaws and all.




4 responses to “Review: Hoop Dreams (1994)

  1. Pingback: Review: The Interrupters (2011) | Bill's Movie Emporium

  2. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Streaming Wasteland! | Bill's Movie Emporium

  3. To me Hoop Dreams is life. Showing the world what top high school programs are accustomed to doing. Especially in the slums or inner cities of Chicago. Especially during the Jordan era. I saw this film in 6th grade and because of it I went to college played ball. Got my degree and still play ball 3 times a week. Bo, Curtis, Luther were all inspirational to me even though I have never met them. Sheila and Arthur as well. Heck even Shannon was a cool dude. Great article but to me Hoop Dreams is the best documentary ever.

  4. Remove a lot of the filler, such as the box score mentality regarding the actual basketball games, and I would think more highly of this doc. I can’t get behind this as an all time great doc though, because in so many areas it comes up short for me.

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