Despite insistence from some commentators that it was worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Hoop Dreams failed even to cinch a nod in the Best Documentary category. Veteran Oscar buffs won't be too surprised at this. Again and again, those rare documentaries that demonstrate anything resembling wide popular appeal are ignored by the awards. Outrage over the Hoop Dreams case has been particularly strong, however, as admiration of the film has been passionate.

Only those who imagine that the Oscars have some objective value--other than as a highly entertaining public dissection of Hollywood's insecure psyche--will suppose that this matters to the makers of Hoop Dreams. The film has probably gotten more publicity by being snubbed than it would have by being nominated. Fueled by indignation, many influential critics, most notably Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, have turned the film into a cause cläbre. At some point, their praise turned hyperbolic, as if the film were a masterpiece.

It isn't. There's a whole side of Hoop Dreams, which spends more than three hours tracing the high school careers of two promising basketball players, black kids from west Chicago, that's basically standard sports documentary. The game footage, though well-done, is conventionally "uplifting"--it's nothing you mightn't expect to receive free with your paid subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Nonetheless, Hoop Dreams is very good, and worth the three-hour investment. The filmmakers, Fred Marx, Steve James and Peter Gilbert (James is credited as director), spent more than four years acquiring their footage, and the first three-fourths of the movie evaporates with the disconcerting speed of real life. You're brought so close to the kids, Arthur Agee and William Gates, that as they get bigger, you may find yourself feeling wistful about how fast they're growing up.

At the beginning of the film, both William and Arthur are wooed by the same private Catholic high school program that produced Isiah Thomas. William stays there all four years, and the intensity with which he is groomed gets to him. He turns from a grinning prodigy to a somber-faced drudge on the court. Arthur is shown the door when he proves an initial disappointment, and returns to Chicago's west side, where he rediscovers some of the fun and glory of the game as the star of his unranked public-school team.

Within this framework, the filmmakers pack a great deal: the exploitation and hypocrisy of most of the scouts and coaches, the dead seriousness with which the men in the families take their vicarious stake in the kids' careers, the mortal dread that attends knee injuries and the moments--too few of them--when the joyful spirit of play triumphs over the rather queasily gladiatorial spirit of organized high school sports. The people speak lines so stinging that a fiction screenwriter wouldn't touch them. A college scout admits that he works in a "meat market," but adds that he tries "to do my job, and serve professional meat."

Arthur's mother, while icing his birthday cake, remarks to herself that "to live to be 18, that's good."

In the last hour of Hoop Dreams, the game footage begins to take over, and the picture really begins to drag. But James and company at least found the perfect ending--yet another of those too-good-for-fiction lines, this one spoken by Gates. Having boiled four years down to three hours, the filmmakers in turn boil down the three hours to this kid's quiet rumination, and it's extraordinarily touching.--M. V. Moorhead

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead