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Perhaps the Best Documentary Ever?
on July 25, 2005
As much as I love the Academy Awards, a lot of mistakes are made every year when they hand out those little coveted golden statues. No Best Director Oscar to Hitchcock? No Best Director Oscar to Scorcese for "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas"? Both travesties. And there are a number of Best Picture Oscar Winners which are only remembered today because they won the Best Picture Oscar. Many of the films nominated the same year are still in the public consciousness because they are great, memorable, outstanding films. Some of the biggest mistakes perpetrated on the public by the Academy Awards have been in the Best Documentary category. "The Thin Blue Line", the groundbreaking documentary by Errol Morris, "Roger and Me", the wildly popular film by Michael Moore and "Hoop Dreams" were all passed up. "Hoop Dreams" was not the best documentary of 1994 but "Maya Lin" is?
Anyone who knows me knows I hate sports. I have never liked to play them or watch them. I am a sports atheist. So, my love of "Hoop Dreams" may come as a surprise to many people.
I think I am drawn to the film so much because, much like the more recent "Murderball", "Dreams" isn't about a sport so much as it is about two kids who love to play the sport. Basketball is a big factor in the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two poor kids from the Chicago projects; they live, eat, dream about becoming professional basketball players, but the film covers their lives and how basketball impacts them as they grow up.
Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, the filmmakers, worked on this project for eight years. Eight years! How many films have such a dedicated crew? During that time, they followed the lives of William, Arthur and their respective families from their freshman year of high school through their freshman year of college. Because of the access afforded to the filmmakers and the length of time they followed the two kids, the film presents a remarkably in-depth look at their lives. We follow William and Arthur for five years of their lives watching them grow up before our eyes. Both kids are good and want to make something of their lives, but various influences impact how their dreams will play out.
Arthur's idol is Isiah Thomas, a former student at St. Joseph's, a private, predominately white Catholic high school in the suburbs. A talent scout spots William and Arthur playing and takes them to meet Gene Pingatore, Thomas' famous former coach. Pingatore places Arthur on the Freshman team and decides William is good enough to play Varsity. Through a series of incidents, Arthur is forced to return to his neighborhood high school where he joins the basketball team.
As each of the kids begins to follow a different road, various influences and circumstances change each of their lives. William's brother, Curtis, a former basketball player in college, dropped out and now struggles to find even a minimum wage job. Yet, at every game, he knows what William should do to become a great basketball player. Arthur's mother, Sheila, throws her husband, Bo, out after he gets involved in drugs. Later, Bo returns to the family after drug rehab and a short stay in prison.
The film also presents the positive moments in each person's life, balancing out the negative. Both are great basketball players; William receives a lot of notice from college scouts and gets a lot of write ups in the newspapers and Arthur gets some notice later from Junior College scouts.
As the film covers the big moments in each year of their lives, their circumstances keep changing. It is amazing how dedicated each is to their sport, because they see it as the only way out of the projects. William has a living, breathing image of what could happen to him standing next to him at almost every turn, his bitter brother. When William finally receives an offer from Marquette University, Curtis denigrates it because he turned them down to attend a university in Florida. William's family life is the most stable, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't have his share of problems. At one point, he goes to Coach Pingatore for some advice on how to deal with these. The coach's response: "Write them off". Thankfully, Williams seems to realize the stupidity of this statement.
Arthur's family life is a mess. His father is in and out of the picture, both financially and to provide guidance and emotional stability. His mother struggles to raise her family on welfare. Later in the film, Sheila attends an educational program to become a nurse's assistant. She learns that she received the highest grades in her class, providing a rare moment of unadulterated happiness in her life. As Arthur is forced out of Saint Joe's and has to return to the neighborhood high school, his spirit seems to go with him. At one point, he returns to Saint Joe's, for a visit, and seems to wish they would take him back.
As the film comes to a close, the heart wrenching finale almost makes you cry. Both kids have such great talent and large dreams which will probably never be realized.
This is an amazing documentary giving us great insight and depth into the lives of these two young men. It is an abomination that the film was not even nominated for Best Documentary at the 1995 Academy Awards.
The Criterion Collection has released the film on DVD. The disc contains two audio commentaries, one with the filmmakers and another with William and Arthur which was recorded this year. There is also a collection of clips from "Siskel and Ebert" highlighting their efforts to champion the film from initial release, through the Academy Awards debacle and finally to Roger Ebert naming it his "Favorite Film of the 90s". Strangely enough, Ebert was sitting across from director Martin Scorcese (who was filling in for the recently departed Gene Siskel) when he named "Hoop Dreams" the best film of the 90s, a decade in which Scorcese released "Goodfellas".
This is a film that everyone should see. Own it. Rent it. Whatever. Just watch it.