Filmmaking, like any major endeavor, is ultimately a shot in the dark—especially with poor lighting. No matter the artist—be they as fastidious as Brian de Palma, or as improvisational as Hayao Miyazaki—no one knows what a film is until the final edit. This is never more true than for documentary production. Part of what makes nonfiction storytelling so exciting is that so many stories in this vein, particularly if they’re being made in real time, is that the people telling them often don’t know what they’re supposed to be looking for until they’re sifting through mountains of footage. This is what dime store reality television tries to capture, or why Catfish could springboard from feature film to a successful series, and what something as perverse and brilliant as Nathan for You does to awe-inspiring degrees.
The sort of spontaneity that makes these shows and films so compelling is the bread and butter of a film like Hoop Dreams, Steve James’s profoundly influential story of two inner-city teenagers who hope to turn their burgeoning talent for basketball into professional success. Filmed over the course of four years, the film parallels degrees of privilege and personality as we watch two promising young men grow up and grapple with their precarious athletic prospects. Hoop Dreams, like a game for the ages, is a thrilling exhibition whose primal displays betray the soul driving the players before us.
Hoop Dreams follows the high school careers of Arthur Agee, and William Gates—who wants to become so famous that he wants people to be aspire the next him, forgetting that the world already has a rather notable William Gates. Both live in poor neighborhoods of Chicago, but are scouted to play ball outside of their digs. Entering their freshmen years of high school, both are accepted to a private school, St. Joseph High School, best known for producing NBA icon Isaiah Thomas. Both come from poor families with dodgy fathers and mothers who want nothing other than for their sons to do well. They’re both making three-hour roundtrip commutes to and from their schools. With the right coaching and followthrough, both Agee and Gates could be great.
Immediately, the more docile Gates is recognized as a natural player, and is put on the varsity team. In turn, the more untethered Agee, despite obvious potential, is left on the freshman team. After a tuition hike, Gates manages to find additional sponsoring. Agee is sent to John Marshall High School, and his folks are stuck with the bill they were unable to pay after the bump—coming after both have been laid off. This sets up a dichotomy that drives the rest of the film, and we get to know who these boys are. One would be hard pressed to say what shows either Agee or Gates likes, or what music they’re into, or what kind of toppings they like on their pizza. We do see that Agee is disciplined and at least proverbially hungry, his family often so poor that they don’t have electricity, and whose patriarch’s violence and drug crimes ruin them. Conversely, Gates is given every opportunity. Even when his knee continually gives out, he is given the medical attention he needs. If anyone else with a little less prowess and the same background were in the same predicament, they’d be finished.
All the while, both athletes are after more or less the same thing. While Agee and Gates both pine for a shot at NBA glory—which they both have a shot at—their families just want them to get an education. This is part of what makes Hoop Dreams so urgent. These boys have to put their bodies at risk just for a chance to not be poor like their families before them. Agee is given numerous obstacles, and Gates is given break after break. Of course, Agee also has fewer expectations, while Gates is being groomed greatness, to become the next great ball player. Agee has fewer eyes on him, and is eventually able to thrive at Marshall. Gates slowly loses his passion for the game—likely from the intense pressure of his coach and sponsors, his responsibilities as a teenage father creeping in, and because basketball is literally breaking him. When both schools arrive at the state championship level during Agee’s and Gates’s senior year, both are primed as competitive adversaries.
James may not be the flashiest documentarian, but he has an eye for story, one that he, and co-editors Frederick Marx and William Haugse find, regardless. That they find so much symmetry and consistency is both a testament to their abilities as craftspeople, as well as a little bit of luck. Yet, that’s what makes Hoop Dreams so magical. Just the being there. James puts his camera everywhere he can—whether this is in offices, on the court, or even dark apartments. And while his storytelling may feel modest or stark, James and his crew would only get in the way of their own story. In fact, such a lack of presumption could have distorted the narrative. Hoop Dreams only suffers when one feels James stepping in, editing game footage to emphasize the tension, and picking and choosing player failures and successes—something that becomes agitating, particularly in the film’s comparatively airless final stretch.
We, of course, know that Gates and Agee never become Isaiah Thomas, or Carmelo Anthony, or even Karl Malone. Nor does the film necessarily spend much time persuading us that they can reach that level of stardom. Instead, we watch two young kids be some of the best players in their peer group. The trick of Hoop Dreams is Agee and Gates are unquestionably capable. No one questions their talent, and to see them play is like watching ballet. They’re graceful and focused in a way that is remarkable for anyone. Because they should have a chance, and because they deserve to be taken seriously, their stories have urgency. Hoop Dreams is so good at existing in a single instance that even if the outcome is inevitable, so is the urge to cheer against a foregone conclusion.